Tag Archives: Isaac Singer invention installment plan

Clothing Budget for a Married Couple, 1925

"Can You Afford to Marry?" asks this article from Delineator magazine, September 1925, p. 21.

“Can You Afford to Marry?” asks this article from Delineator magazine, September 1925, p. 21.

In September of 1925, as part of an ongoing series on budgets, Delineator’s Home Economist asked, “Can You Afford to Marry?” in an article titled “When George and Mary Wish to Marry,” by Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose. This article suggested a budget for two people, living without any luxuries, but “in comfort and decency:”

Minimum Budget for a married couple, Delineator, Sept. 1925.

Minimum Budget for a married couple, Delineator, Sept. 1925. This assumes a minimum weekly salary of about $35.00.

Caution: “There is nothing as dangerous as a man who has only read one book.” — Molly Ivins in a radio interview.

Obviously, no serious scholar would base economic deductions on just one source — in this case, a series of articles in a woman’s magazine — The Delineator — published by Butterick. The Butterick Publishing Company emphasized fashions adapted from Paris couture, aimed at an aspiring middle-class reader. (The public areas of its Manhattan office building were decorated in 1903 by Louis Comfort Tiffany)  Consider those facts while reading this article. I’ll share what I have. (Since Delineator was a large format magazine, I broke the long article up into smaller paragraphs in a separate post, for legibility. Click here to read the original article in full.)

Although I was most interested in the clothing budget for a man and woman in 1925, we need to look at the suggested food budget to get an idea of the general standard of living for “comfort and decency,” as envisioned in this article. The authors offered several possibilities. (Later, they did the same for the clothing budget.)

Story illustration from Delineator, April 1929.

Story illustration from Delineator, April 1929.

Food Budget for Two People, 1925:  $30 per month

“What must Mary and George spend for food? To provide a dietary that will give the greatest measure of health and protection from food, not less than eighty cents a day is necessary for raw food materials for two grown persons.”

A) 80 cents per day?  “This small amount spent for right foods means a wholesome diet, but a monotonous, uninteresting and unvaried one. It restricts eating to eating to live.

B) $1.00 to $1.10 per day?  “For two adults with knowledge and skill [this] will buy raw food materials for a simple, plain diet with a few spots of interest.”

C) $1.50 per day? “A dollar and a half per day for raw food materials for two adults will permit some food luxuries….”

D) $2.00 per day? “Two dollars a day, skillfully spent, will provide materials for food luxuries, as well as necessities.”

Conclusion? $30 per month on food for two people.  “To furnish anything like an appealing, and at the same time adequate diet, …these young people should count on not less than fifty cents a day apiece or a dollar a day or thirty dollars a month to buy the raw food materials.”

This lets us know that their total budget of $150 per month, or $1800 per year, is not based on a high standard of living. It is, in the opinion of Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, barely above subsistence level. It also implies that all meals will be prepared at home from raw materials.

From an ad for a Butterick cookbook, June 1925. Delineator magazine

From an ad for a Butterick cookbook, June 1925. Delineator magazine

Clothing Budget for Two People, 1925:  $360 per year

“What shall Mary and George spend for clothes? Nowhere can we find any satisfactory basis for agreement on a clothing standard. All we can do is to summarize the budgets we have had given to us by various friends who are maintaining a fair to good appearance on modest incomes.”

Story illustration by Joseph M. Clement, Delineator, Nov. 1924.

Story illustration by Joseph M. Clement, Delineator, Nov. 1924.

A) $150 per year for Mary’s clothing and $125 for George? With $275 per year, “Mary, if skillful, may maintain the wardrobe decently but meagerly for a hundred and fifty dollars for herself and a hundred twenty-five dollars for George.”

B) $200 per year for Mary and $150 for George? ($350 per year) “With two hundred dollars for herself and one hundred fifty for George, plus her skill in making, making over, and repair, the two may be simply but attractively clothed.”

C) $300 for Mary and $225 for George? ($525 for a married couple) “With three hundred dollars for Mary and two hundred twenty-five dollars for George, they may begin to rise into the well-dressed class; but this amount still means a very modest wardrobe for each.

Conclusion? $360 per year for clothing one man and one woman.  “To maintain a standard of clothes which will give them not only comfort but reasonable satisfaction in looking well, it is hardly safe to plan on less than two hundred dollars for Mary and one hundred fifty dollars for George. If Mary can not sew, they must count on spending very much more than this. Exceptions to this allowance may be made in warm climates, where the cost of clothing may be reduced.”

Sewing. From Delineator, July 1926.

Sewing. From Delineator, July 1926.

Note that the husband’s wardrobe is always less expensive than the wife’s. A white collar businessman could wear the same suit to the office, day after day. He would need a winter coat and a raincoat, a tuxedo, a summer suit and a winter suit, perhaps a blazer and white flannel trousers, at least two hats, and shirts, ties, shoes, etc. His wife’s wardrobe would be driven by four, rather than two, seasons — and would go out of style faster. If he was a rising young businessman, she would need to attend social occasions with him, and look “attractively clothed.”

Of course, Butterick’s Delineator magazine had a vested interest in encouraging home sewing:

Ad for Butterick Patterns, Delineator, Dec. 1924.

Ad for Butterick Patterns, Delineator, Dec. 1924.

In 1925, you could get a treadle sewing machine from Sears for $33, or a portable electric for $43. Singer invented the installment plan, because a sewing machine cost at least a week’s salary (two weeks’ salary for a woman.)

Other appliance sales followed suit:

Hoover vacuum ad, Delineator, Nov. 1925.

Hoover vacuum ad, Delineator, Nov. 1925. “$6.25 down! — that was all I paid to have my Hoover delivered….By the end of the month I had more than enough to meet the small payment.”

Grocery Shopping. Story illustration by S. george Phillips, Delineator, Sept. 1926.

Grocery Shopping. Story illustration by S. George Phillips, Delineator, Sept. 1926.

Apparently the Delineator’s economists assume that “Mary” will have a full time job just looking after herself and George — grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and sewing; some women worked outside the home, however, until they started a family; the wife’s salary would help a couple build up a “nest egg.” The home economists definitely assume that the couple must plan for children, and consequently their expenses for “shelter,” “furnishings,” and “operating” will be the biggest portion (43%) of their income.

Build-your-own-house kits. Ad from Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

Build-your-own-house kits. Ad from Better Homes and Gardens, 1930. Land and labor extra.

Housing Budget for a Married Couple, 1925

From $1800 a year, $780 is budgeted for Shelter, Furnishings, and Operating Expenses.

Minimum Budget for a married couple, Delineator, Sept. 1925.

Minimum Budget for a married couple, Delineator, Sept. 1925.

Twenty percent of their income will be spent on Food, and another 20% on Clothing. “Shelter, Furnishings, and Operating expenses” are all part of home ownership. This article assumed that the couple will have at least two children eventually, so they would need either a larger apartment than a single person would, or a house of their own. The cost of transportation to and from work (a used car, if necessary) was included under Shelter; Operating expenses included utilities, home and yard upkeep, property taxes, home insurance, cooking and heating fuel, as well as cleaning supplies and appliances, laundry, and “services.”

Ad for Lorain Gas Stove. Delineator, Sept. 1926.

Ad for Lorain Gas Stove. Delineator, Sept. 1926.

In 1925, utility expenses included ice delivery, for the “ice box” refrigerator, and a telephone.

A telephone in two rooms. Ad, Better Homes and Gardens, July 1930.

A telephone in two rooms. Ad, Better Homes and Gardens, July 1930. “There are few places where a telephone is needed more than in the kitchen …. Calls can be placed or answered without getting too far from an active and temperamental oven.”

A married couple would either send their laundry out or, perhaps, buy a new “washing machine.”

Article about purchasing a washing machine. Delineator, Aug. 1926.

Article about purchasing a washing machine. Delineator, Aug. 1926.

Washing machines, Delineator, August 1926.

Washing machines, Delineator, August 1926. The woman on the left is filling hers with a hose, and it drains into a hole in the floor. The machine on the right is even more primitive. No wonder many “sent out” their household laundry.

Clothes for a Married Woman versus a Single Working Woman.

What really interested me was how the clothing budget for a married woman,  given in the 1925 article, compared with the clothing budget for a single, working woman from the previous year. In 1924, the Delineator economists allowed a yearly clothing budget of $3.00 a week, about $156 per year,  for a woman earning $18 per week.

Living on $18 per week in 1924. Clothing, cleaning, laundry expenses. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

Living on $18 per week in 1924. Clothing, cleaning, laundry expenses. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

To read the post comparing a woman’s dress budget from 1924 with one from 1936, click here. Both articles agree that a woman should plan to spend between $150 and $200 dollars per year on clothes in 1925. If a single woman’s laundry and cleaning expenses are added to her clothing purchases, her clothing expenditure totals about $200 for the year.

“Mary, if skillful, may maintain the wardrobe decently but meagerly for a hundred and fifty dollars for herself … “With two hundred dollars for herself and one hundred fifty for George, plus her skill in making, making over, and repair, the two may be simply but attractively clothed.”

Butterick patterns, Delineator, Oct. 1925.

Butterick patterns, Delineator, Oct. 1925. By 1927, Mary would need to be shortening or remaking these dresses.

At the end of “When George and Mary Wish to Marry,” the writers acknowledged that many families live on a much smaller amount of money than the $1800 in their “comfort and decency” minimum budget:

“…Hundreds of thousands of families in this country are living on smaller incomes than this…. They have faced and adjusted themselves to the sacrifices which must be made where money is too scarce to provide the amount of comfort we have described as reasonable.”

And, in 1929-1930, the Great Depression put a sudden end to the optimism — and salaries —  of the nineteen twenties.

"Income cut in half... food prices rising... and six hungry mouths to feed." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, 1934

“Income cut in half… food prices rising… and six hungry mouths to feed.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, 1934.

For anyone wishing to read the entire budget article from 1925, which breaks down other expenses, including the cost of having children, it can be found here.

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Menswear, Nightclothes and Robes, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers

A Woman’s Clothing Budget for 1924 versus 1936

It’s always hard to look at a vintage ad or catalog, see a pair of shoes for $6.50, and figure out whether they were expensive or affordable or really cheap at the time. A while ago, I found several articles about living on $18 per week in the 1930’s. Click here to read more about them. I’ll be citing some of the same charts here.

Gowns from B. Altman catalog, 1924-25. Prices, left to right, $55, $78, $65

Gowns from B. Altman catalog, 1924-25. Prices, left to right, $55, $78, $65.

I’ve been looking through JoAnne Olian’s book on the B. Altman catalogs from the 1920’s. I was surprised by how high Altman’s clothing prices seemed, especially early in the decade. Then I remembered that I have some articles about clothing budgets in the 1920’s, which might give me a better idea of nineteen twenties’ clothing prices.

I decided to compare the nineteen twenties’ and thirties’ budget advice, and see if I could follow it by “shopping” at Sears.

I was struck by one similarity:  In both 1924 and 1936, a college educated office worker — female — could expect to be paid “$18 per week.” So she probably wouldn’t be shopping from the B. Altman catalog; nevertheless, trying to look nicely dressed for work was a real concern.

This woman earned $18 per week in 1924:

Budget for living on $18 per week. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 21.

Earning $18 per week in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 21.

“…It is necessary that I at all times look well. My wages are figured at the rate of forty cents an hour, which usually averages up to eighteen dollars a week.”

This woman earned $18 per week in 1937:

 Earning $18 a week in 1937. Woman's Home Companion ad, Sept. 1937.

Earning $18 a week in 1937. Woman’s Home Companion ad, Sept. 1937.

“… For several years I could not expect to earn more than $18 a week, even though … I was a bit above the average beginner. Therefore my small salary would just about pay my board and keep me in lunches and carfare with nothing left. I needed new clothes [for] the office … because my dress was so shabby.”

Woman’s Clothing Budget in the 1930’s

In 1936, this article asked “Can a college girl dress on a dollar and a half a week?”

"What Can A Girl Live On?" Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1936

“What Can A Girl Live On?” Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936. Total clothing budget for the year:  $76.55, about one month’s salary.

It concluded that . . .

Budget for living on $20 per week. From Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1934.

Budget for living on $20 per week. From Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936.

. . . A college graduate making $20 a week in 1936 could afford to spend just $78 a year — $1.50 per week — on clothes. “By being economical she can live decently and comfortably on seven hundred and fifty dollars.” (In theory, she would also be able to save over $100 per year, and/or take a vacation! Or so they said.)

Woman’s Clothing Budget in the 1920’s

The stenographer who wrote to Delineator magazine in August, 1924, asked how a woman with an office job could live — and dress well enough to satisfy her employers — on $18 a week.

That’s right:  The salary of a female office worker was exactly the same — $18 per week — in 1924 and 1936. But in 1924, The Delineator’s experts reached a somewhat different conclusion about her necessary expenditures on clothing.

Living on $18 in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

How a woman can live on $18 a week in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

In 1924, $3.00 per week was allowed for clothing purchases — twice as much as in 1936. But in 1924, she needed much less for food and lodging (50% of her income) than in the thirties (62.5%.)

Comparing a Working Girl’s Budget, 1924 and 1936

I’m not enthusiastic about the way Woman’s Home Companion rounded $18 per week up to “$80 per month or $960 per year,” so I’ve compared percentages of  income as stated, and lightened my derived figures on this chart.) I multiplied $18 by 52 weeks; WHC multiplied $20 x 4 x 12 months.)

Percent of income spent on Food, Lodging, and Clothes as budgeted in Woman's Home Companion (1936) and Delineator (1924).

Percent of income spent on Food, Lodging, and Clothes as budgeted in Woman’s Home Companion (1936) and Delineator (1924). Click to enlarge. It assumes living in a rented room, probably without a kitchen, and eating many meals out.

Perhaps, during the Depression, food cost more, leaving less money for clothing? Or had mass produced fashions become much more affordable?

Just for fun, I tried to find comparable items in the Sears Roebuck catalogs for 1924 and 1936, always choosing the cheapest similar items I could find to build a stenographer’s wardrobe.

Comparing a Working Girl’s Clothing Prices, 1924 and 1936

After browsing through Sears Roebuck Catalogs for 1924 and 1936, I’m struck by the decrease in some clothes prices. (In both cases, I looked for the very cheapest, not the mid-priced, garments.)

Skirts and Blouses

Wool skirts, Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Wool skirts, Sears catalog, Fall 1924. The cheapest costs $3.48.

Wool blend skirts from Sears catalog, Fall, 1936.

Wool & wool blend skirts from Sears catalog, Fall, 1936. About $2.00 each. The cheapest costs $1.00.

Inexpensive blouses were easier to find in the thirties, too.

Inexpensive blouses from the Sears catalog, Fall, 1924.

Inexpensive blouses from the Sears catalog, Fall, 1924. Three of these cost less than a dollar each, but the most expensive is $3.48 — or more, in stout sizes.

Blouses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936.

Blouses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936. Six cost $1 each, and the others are less than $2. Could any woman make her own blouse for $1 (pattern 15 cents, thread, material @ 14 to 69 cents per yard, and buttons)? Maybe.

A typist could buy a skirt and blouse for less than $3.00 in the thirties, or about $4.50 in the twenties. But she’d have to settle for the cheapest clothes available from stores like Sears, not from upscale department stores.

Dresses suitable for the office:

The cheapest Sears dresses (excluding cotton housedresses) cost about $5.00 in 1924:

Wool dresses suitable for for the office, Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Wool dresses suitable for for the office, Sears catalog, Fall 1924. These three were among the very cheapest in the catalog, with many more dresses in the $8 to $16 range. The average price of the 11 dresses described on this page is $7.39.

In 1936, most Sears business dresses were made of Celanese, rather than wool, so they are not strictly comparable.

Dresses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936.

Dresses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936. The $5 dress on the right can be transformed with different necklines.

Sears dresses for $3.98 in 1936. Fall 1936 catalog.

Sears dresses for $3.98 in 1936. Fall 1936 catalog. “Every one a $5.00 value.”

The cheapest nineteen thirties’ office dresses from Sears are about $4; and the variety in this lowest price range is much bigger than in the twenties. Office workers with only one or two dresses could make it seem like they had more by wearing different collars. (See One Good Dress in the 1930’s. ) Patterns for “change-about” dresses were also available. In 1936, the Woman’s Home Companion budget allowed a stenographer just four dresses per year, at $5 each.

Coats

You could find a winter coat for about $9 at Sears in the twenties or the thirties. Of course, a coat was expected to last at least two years.

Inexpensive coats from Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Inexpensive coats from Sears catalog, Fall 1924. Pure Wool cost more than ” wool velour” or duvetyn.

Better Sears coats cost two to four times as much as these. In 1924-25, a fur-trimmed wool coat from the B. Altman catalog cost $110 to $115:

The coat on the left cost $110, the one on the right $115. B. Altman catalog, 1924 1925.

The coat on the left cost $110, the one on the right $115. B. Altman catalog, 1924 1925.

Better quality fur-trimmed coats from Sears could cost $49 in 1924. And our “stenographer” had only $156 to spend on an entire, year-round wardrobe — coats, shoes, dresses, hats, stockings at about $1 per pair (a big ongoing expense), underwear, etc.

"Economy" coats from Sears Catalog, Fall 1936.

“Economy” coats from Sears Catalog, Fall 1936.

In 1936, The Woman’s Home Companion budgeted $12.50 for a winter coat, every other year. These coats from Sears are a real bargain — assuming that they actually kept you warm and dry.

Shoes:

Inexpensive shoes from Sears cost much less in the 1930’s than in the 1920’s:

Sears shoes, Fall 1924. Stylish, but about $4 per pair.

Sears shoes, Fall 1924. Stylish, but most cost about $4 to $5 per pair.

Shoes from Sears, fall 1936. In all the current styles, and only $2 per pair.

Shoes from Sears, fall 1936. In up-to-date styles, and less than $2 per pair.

In 1936, The Woman’s Home Companion allowed a young woman four pairs of shoes per year — at $3 per pair.

Conclusion:  A careful shopper, fresh out of college and earning $18 per week, could definitely make her clothing budget go farther in 1936 than in 1924 — but she would not be buying $6.50 shoes, and no one with an eye for quality would consider her well-dressed.

Skirtsa dna bloused from the B. Altman catalog, 1925. THe ensemble on the left cost $18.50; the one in the middle was $24.25, and the one on the right cost $24.50.

Skirts and blouses from the B. Altman catalog, 1925. The ensemble on the left cost $18.50, a whole week’s salary; the one in the middle was $24.25, and the one on the right cost $24.50.

No wonder there was a boom in clothing patterns and home sewing in the 1920’s — largely because early twenties’ dress styles were easier to make than ever before. Isaac Singer is credited with the invention of the installment plan, but you’d have to make a lot of clothes to amortize the cost of a sewing machine….

Sears' Portable electric Franklin sewing machine, Spring 1925.

Sears’ portable electric Franklin sewing machine, Spring 1925.

Sewing Machine Prices, 1925 and 1936

In 1925, you could get a treadle sewing machine from Sears for $33, or a portable electric for $43. By 1936, you could get an electric portable or table model from Sears for less than $30 — but inexpensive machines with the new, round shuttle cost more — about $38. In either year, we’re talking about two weeks’ wages for a working woman.

CAUTION:  I did this study for fun, and tried to be accurate. But these samples are much too small for real scholarship. Since not all issues of Delineator and Woman’s Home Companion are widely available — or indexed — I wanted to let serious students of economics know that this material exists — and deserves a more thorough evaluation than I am capable of doing.

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Shoes, Sportswear, Uniforms and Work Clothes