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The Changing Value of $1

The one-dollar bill is one of the world’s most powerful pieces of paper. In 2021, due to the pandemic, inflation hit a 30-year high highlighting the changing power of the dollar for most. And while a single buck isn’t going to buy you your first home, or a brand new set of wheels, it is crucial for your weekly groceries or gassing up those wheels.

We wanted to know how the power of the dollar has changed over time so we analyzed historic pricing and cost of living data to show you what your $1 would get you at the grocery store in 2021, compared to every decade going back to 1900.

Contents

Key findings

The Value of $1 in 1900-1910 vs 2021

Overall, across the goods we analyzed, we found that one dollar purchased approximately 94% less in 2021 compared to 1900-1910.

Below is a breakdown of what one dollar could purchase in 1900-1910 compared to the 2020s.

Item Amount per dollar (1900-1910) Amount per dollar (2020s) Change (%)
Chocolate 1.25 lb 0.1 lb -92%
Coffee 3 lb 0.18 lb -94%
Butter 4 lb 0.26 lb -93.50%
Lemons 80 lemons 1.8 lemons -97.75%
Toilet paper 12 rolls 1.2 rolls -90%
Soap  20 bars 0.78 bar -96.10%
Gasoline 14.3 gallons 0.3 gallon -97.90%
Rice 14.2 lb 1.4 lb -90.10%
Bread 14.2 loaves 0.5 loaves -96.50%
Milk 3.6 gallons 0.3 gallon -91.70%

While our data goes back to 1900, it’s considered that the power of the dollar was actually at its peak in the 1910s after the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, which was designed to alleviate the damage caused by financial crises, primarily brought on by the financial panic of 1907. 

You can see the power of the 1910s dollar (1910-1920) in some grocery items in our analysis, for example, chocolate peaked in the decade at 2.1lb/$1 as did lemons at 125 lemons/$1. 

However, some other items were at their most cost-effective in the 1920s during this period of financial security and before the financial crash in 1929. For example, a 1920s American could buy the most coffee (3.7 lb/$1) and toilet paper (30 rolls/$1) per dollar in this decade than any other.

Below is a breakdown of each item over time and how much one dollar would be able to purchase in each decade from the 1900s to today. 

Chocolate

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Between 1900-1910, $1 would get you an average of 1.25 lb of chocolate, this peaked higher at 2.1 lb in the next decade only to come crashing back down to 1.25 lb in the 1920s. Since the 2000s began, you can expect to get an average of 0.1 lb (1.6 oz) of chocolate for $1, and this is still true today.

Decade Chocolate (lb per $1)
1900s 1.25
1910s 2.1
1920s 1.25
1930s 1.8
1940s 1.8
1950s 1.25
1960s 1.25
1970s 0.37
1980s 0.27
1990s 0.18
2000s 0.1
2010s 0.1
2020s 0.1

Coffee

The average coffee lover drinks over 3 cups a day! How far can a dollar get you toward your caffeine fix now? To analyze this we looked at historic prices of coffee grounds over time. See the results in the GIF below.

Coffee

The most coffee you could get for your money was in the 1940s, at 4.1lb/$1.00, and now you can get an average of just 0.17lb for $1.

Decade Coffee (lb per $1)
1900s 3
1910s 3
1920s 3.7
1930s 2.5
1940s 4.1
1950s 1.15
1960s 1
1970s 1
1980s 0.5
1990s 0.4
2000s 0.34
2010s 0.18
2020s 0.18

Butter

Essential for your morning toast or home-baked goods, butter is a staple in our grocery shopping - but how many blocks could you get with one dollar over time? We’ve worked out the numbers below.

Butter

Between 1900-1910 you could get an average of 4lb butter per dollar, and it has decreased fairly consistently each decade since, although there was a slight rise in the 1930s, where $1 could buy 2.7 lb of butter - that’s enough for over 3 carrot cake recipes! The purchasing power of the dollar did increase in the 30s due to the stock market crash in 1929, so such fluctuations could be expected.

Decade Butter (lb per $1)
1900s 4
1910s 3.2
1920s 2.2
1930s 2.7
1940s 2.3
1950s 1.4
1960s 1.7
1970s 1.4
1980s 0.5
1990s 0.5
2000s 0.67
2010s 0.18
2020s 0.26

Lemons

It’s highly unlikely you would have spent a dollar on lemons in the 1910s because that single buck would’ve bought you around 125 individual lemons. This is up from 80 lemons in the decade before. Here’s how many lemons one dollar can buy the average person over time.

lemon
Decade Lemons (lemons per $1)
1900s 80
1910s 125
1920s 60
1930s 60
1940s 21
1950s 24
1960s 25
1970s 12
1980s 10
1990s 10
2000s 2.6
2010s 1.8
2020s 1.8

Toilet paper

Today, a dollar will buy you an average of 1.2 toilet paper rolls. Naturally, you can’t purchase 0.2 of a roll but in our visuals, we used this to show to the sheet just how much paper you can get for your money and it’s nowhere near the pyramid of 30 rolls you could have purchased in the 1920s.

Toilet paper

Importantly, even if we analyzed the sheet count of toilet paper over time, we have no reliable way of understanding the change in sheet size over time. Toilet paper sheets have shrunk from around 4.5 inches to 4 in the last decade and this probably happened many other times since the 1900s. Ultimately, this means the dollar has bought many fewer wipes and cleanups as well as fewer sheets over time.

Decade Toilet paper (rolls per $1)
1900s 12
1910s 28
1920s 30
1930s 15
1940s 6.6
1950s 8
1960s 11
1970s 6
1980s 3.6
1990s 3.4
2000s 2.4
2010s 2.6
2020s 1.2

Soap

If you wanted to stay clean back in the 1900s, one dollar would get you 20 soap bars - that’s enough for one person for about two years worth of regular cleaning!

Toilet paper

Interestingly, when looking at the price of soap bars over time, we can see that $1 would have got you around 12 bars in both the 1910s and 1950s. It’s possible that the two world wars and the 1929 stock market crash impacted this, but it is hard to say for certain.

Decade Soap (bars per $1)
1900s 20
1910s 12.5
1920s 15
1930s 15
1940s 7
1950s 12
1960s 9
1970s 16
1980s 2.5
1990s 5
2000s 1.3
2010s 1.8
2020s 0.78

Gasoline

In the 1900s you could get an average of 14.3 gallons for one dollar, fast forward to the 2020s and you can expect around 0.3 gallons per dollar. This is of course a nationwide average and would vary greatly in each state but here’s how much gas one dollar could’ve bought you over time.

Gasoline
Decade Gasoline (gallons per $1)
1900s 14.3
1910s 6.6
1920s 4.7
1930s 5.2
1940s 4.3
1950s 4.3
1960s 3
1970s 1.75
1980s 0.9
1990s 0.87
2000s 0.43
2010s 0.3
2020s 0.3

Rice

Between 1900-1910, you could buy an average of 14.2 lbs of rice for one dollar, that's over ten times more than a buck will get you now (1.4 lb/$1). Despite this, using an inflation calculator, we can see that one dollar in 1900 would be worth around $33 in 2021.

Rice

In the 1910s, 30s, and 40s, you could consistently buy over 11 lbs of rice with one dollar, except for the 1920s where historic grocery ads indicate you could only buy around 5.8 lbs for the same price.

Decade Rice (lb per $1)
1900s 14.2
1910s 11.6
1920s 5.8
1930s 11.1
1940s 11.1
1950s 5.8
1960s 5.2
1970s 4.5
1980s 2
1990s 2
2000s 1.9
2010s 1.4
2020s 1.4

Bread

Most people are unlikely to need more than one or two loaves of bread, but in the 1900s and 1910s, you could buy over 14 with one dollar if you wanted. Since the 2010s, a dollar can buy an average of half a loaf of bread, up from an eighth of a loaf in the 2000s.

Bread
Decade Bread (loaves per $1)
1900s 14.2
1910s 14.2
1920s 10.7
1930s 11.1
1940s 10
1950s 8.3
1960s 4.5
1970s 4
1980s 2
1990s 1.4
2000s 0.8
2010s 0.5
2020s 0.5

Milk

From 1900 until the 1930s, one dollar could buy 3.6 gallons of milk consistently, and then you could get even more (3.8 gallons) in the 30s for the same amount. After this, one dollar would buy less milk each decade as the cost of living increased leading to around 0.3 gallons from the 2000s onwards.

Milk
Decade Milk (gallons per $1)
1900s 3.6
1910s 3.6
1920s 3.6
1930s 3.8
1940s 1.92
1950s 1.2
1960s 1
1970s 0.76
1980s 0.45
1990s 0.4
2000s 0.31
2010s 0.34
2020s 0.3

Methodology

We took historic food and gasoline prices from a range of sources to plot the average price per decade per item focusing solely on how much one dollar could buy of that item. 

Where possible average retail prices were used, however, the prices were dictated by what historical data exists. Where there was enough data across multiple years, we took a mean average price for the decade for the products analyzed. For some decades, data was only available for one year. 

2021 prices were taken from Walmart’s online grocery prices on the 1st October 2021. Average costs were taken from the ten most popular products in that category based on the ‘Best selling’ filter functionality.  

Data shows how much of a product you could have bought for $1 in that decade. Products like bread for example, were analyzed as if you could buy portions of a loaf to show exactly what $1 could purchase. 

Also it should be noted that the data does not, and cannot, account for a societal shift in the size of non-weighted products like soap bars which are simply priced per bar and not in oz. 

Sources

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