A trip to my attic revealed a Fortune magazine dated August 1931. I'm fascinated by how much has changed, and how much is similar. Then as now, the advertisers most able to afford full-page ads are automobile companies. Here's an ad for a Packard, an Oakland, and a Cadillac. Wouldn't you love to drive one of them?
This article caught my eye. One of the differences I notice between then and now is that automobile companies were able to pay premium wages. In 1931, that was $7 a day — not an hour — $7 a day! Yet we learn that for Fred Gurty, earning $1700 a year, $500 more than the $1200 he used to be paid, still challenges his ability to live within his income. I’m intrigued by the description of Gurty, the family, their options, and choices.
$7 A DAY
"Fred Gurty is thirty-nine, thin, smooth-shaven, not very bright. He has a job working for Henry Ford, building cars, and they pay him $7 a day. In 1914, he married a girl and now they have two children. She never could cook well, and she never cared. She does all the housework, but she has an electric iron and an electric washing machine.
They rent the third floor of a wooden house on Amazon Avenue. For $32.50 a month, they get a living room, a kitchen, three bedrooms, and a bath, all of them plastered, and half the rooms with stoves for heat. The toilet is in the house and the rooms have outside windows. Food has changed in the last ten years. Beef and potatoes have given way to milk, vegetables and fruit. If this change is healthy the Gurtys should someday pay less than $64 to their doctors and dentists.
Gurty spends $20 a year on tobacco, mostly fifteen-cent cigarettes. The family used to spend $12 a year at the barber, but now the children have their haircuts at home. Gurty reads the papers and detective-story magazines, and about once a year he buys a book that the family shares. As for a radio, the Gurty’s have yet to buy one. Half the flats on the street have phonographs, but Gurty doesn’t quite understand how buying records can be arranged.
The Gurty car is used for recreation and vacations and not for the daily run to the factory. After all, gas costs 10 cents a gallon. He bought the car last year on the installment plan for a down payment of $250, leaving $190 to pay. And there is still $75 due on the washing machine, which means that the Gurtys will be paying installments for some time. But so will most of their friends, which is a certain consolation. All the Gurtys in all the Amazon Avenues are about $10 in debt at the end of each year. And when he thinks about it, Fred Gurty doesn't take much pleasure in the car, the washing machine, or his wife's silk stockings."
This gives us an interesting picture of how life was lived by a blue-collar family 85 years ago. The unnamed writer implies that Gurty is the decision maker as well as the sole income earner. I was curious to place 1931 in the context of some historic events: women winning the right to vote in 1914; World War 2 in 1939; the Civil Rights Movement much later in 1960; and still later, the Women's Rights Movement in 1968.
In many ways, we've come a long way. I wonder what future readers will think of our 2016 options and choices when, 85 years from now, they read about our lives.
Source: Fortune Magazine, August issue, 1931.