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Spotlight: Prices and Wages Guide Illuminates a 1920 Cartoon

Boy tells girl “Jes’ you wait, Susie—I got six seventy-one saved up. Soon as I get nineteen dollars I’m gonna git me seventeen white collars and a swell suit; then I’m gonna git a job as office boy in a bank and git a four thousand dollar bonus an’ buy you that there Soudan.”

The caption, above, to this cute 1920 cartoon from Cartoons magazine (vol.17 no.3), provides a unique opportunity to showcase our Prices and Wages by Decade research guide. The guide, which helps researchers locate primary sources showing historic retail prices and average wages, links mainly to government reports, but also includes catalogs and newspapers when relevant.

This ambitious young man mentions a number of figures that we could take a closer look at with the help of Prices and Wages: the prices of a swell suit and white collars, wages of office boys, and price of a sedan in 1920. To start checking his numbers, let’s head to the 1920s page of the guide.

First, for suits and collars, the 1920 Montgomery Ward catalog link found under the Merchandise tab of the Prices section sounds promising. Sure enough, the index tells us that ‘collars’ can be found on page 388 and ‘youths suits’ on pages 320 to 322. There are plenty of both collars and fine suits for our young hero to choose from!

Image Source: Montgomery Ward Catalog No. 93, 1920.

Next we move over to the Wages section to see what we can find for office boy earnings. The link for teenagers’ wages in Detroit, 1922 may be a good place to start. It takes us to the publication Occupations of junior workers in Detroit, which shows the 1922 pay of office boys as $6, $12, or $25 per week depending on hours worked per week (p.22). An entry from the 1921 Official Publication of the Central Trades and Labor Council of Greater New York and Vicinity shows another figure: “As office boy…His compensation is at the rate of $300 per year, and he is paid $25 monthly” (p.47).

Image source: 1920 Official handbook of automobiles.

Finally, the big ticket item—the sedan. Back on the Prices side, there is a Travel and Transportation tab containing a link for car prices for 1920-1924 in annual editions of the Handbook of AutomobilesSelecting the 1920 edition, we are taken to a digital copy at the HathiTrust digital library; from here we can either browse by our favorite automaker or search for the word “sedan” using the ‘Search in this text’ tool located at the top right-hand corner of the reading pane to find price listings. Some sedans are indeed priced around $4000 or higher.

What do you think, was our young friend accurate with his financial planning?


Lindsay Yungbluth

Lindsay Yungbluth is a Library Information Specialist at Ellis Library where she works in Government Documents.