“Marrying on so small an income is a courageous undertaking….’I can’t allow a cent more than $8 a week for food,’ says Mrs. Green.”
By chance, I came across two advertisements from the late 1930s that referred to living on eighteen dollars a week (above), and I also found a clothes’ budget article for a young college woman which confirms that her wages after graduation would be about $20 per week. (I will go into detail about each of these later.)
Sharing the History of Everyday Fashions and What They Cost
It’s difficult to get a sense of what things really cost in the past, but theatrical costumers need to be able to place fashions not only in time, but in social class.
We ask, “What kind of woman could afford $6.50 shoes in 1936? Are they cheap or expensive?”
“Would these dresses have been worn by the wife of a clerk, or the wife of the company president?”
Even information from the same magazine can be contradictory; a September 1937 advertisement seeking women to sell subscriptions to Woman’s Home Companion magazine (“No Need for Self-Pity”) implies that a working girl will struggle to get by on $18 a week; an editorial in the same magazine, October, 1936, said she would be able to afford vacation travel, and still put money into savings, while earning just $20 a week.
What Can A Girl Live On? A College Girl’s Clothing Budget, 1936
I have broken this brief editorial (one column from Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936) into sections so that it will be large enough for you to read it yourself:
I’m posting it in the hope that some enterprising economist or women’s studies researcher will find it of interest. I’ll try to limit my comments, but…
1. Note that items with an asterisk are expected to last two or three years: coats, pull-on rubber shoe covers, an umbrella, bedroom slippers.
2. She is expected to get by on four dresses ($5 each), and four pairs of shoes ($3 each), per year. (Walk-in closets were not needed in the 1930s.) This explains the many 1930s patterns for dresses that were easy to transform with a change of collar, or sash.
Companion-Butterick offered a series of patterns with “button-in” features, like this one, # 7579, which can be worn with three separate button-in vestees. “If you are an executive’s secretary you may want two vestees for the office — one in the dress material perhaps, with a tiny piqué collar, the other in plaid taffeta – and a third, for after-hours parties, in sparkling gold lamé.”
3. A pair of stockings is expected to last a month (15 pairs per year.)
“Runs cost money.” A run in her stocking could be enough to drive a working woman to tears – she might have to choose between eating and buying a new pair of stockings, and she was expected to wear stockings to work.
4. A “smock” is a puzzling item, but could be required in certain college classes, such as chemistry, art, or home economics. When you only have four dresses, protecting them would be important, and an apron or housedress would only be worn while doing work at home.
Living on Twenty Dollars – or Less – a Week
The 1936 article confirms that “The average University of Washington co-ed who steps into the working world earns an average of eighty dollars a month.”
This advertisement – purportedly quoting a letter from a subscriber – says “If you have ever known the need for extra money you can understand how I felt when I found, on starting my business career, that for several years I could not expect to earn more than $18 a week…. Therefore my small salary would just about pay my room and board and keep me in lunches and carfare with nothing left…. I needed new clothes and I often felt like crawling into the darkest corner of the office because my dress was so shabby…. My heart fairly ached.” Her problem was solved when – like “ten thousand” others, “girls and women in offices and homes, …even sweet-faced grandmothers” — she began selling subscriptions to the Woman’s Home Companion [or so says the ad.]
On the other hand, Royal Baking Powder ran a series of Great Depression advertisements, like the one at the top of this post, featuring true-life stories about people who were coping with low or lost income:
The house this couple lives in (pictured at top of ad) looks rather impressive to me.
Maybe a single woman earning $20 a week could afford a vacation.
A Summer Wardrobe for $34.33
This home-made summer wardrobe (Delineator, May 1934, p.71) was analyzed as costing $34.33 – including patterns, not including thread. At first glance, it seemed much more than the $20 for four dresses per year allotted to the University of Washington co-eds. However, the $34.33 total included a coat ($8.13) and a shorts and shirt outfit ($3.06.) The four dresses (one a jacket dress) could be made for $23.14 (or less, if you made the striped dress from cotton instead of silk. ) If you didn’t sew, you could buy a dress, or a suit, or a skirt and two blouses from the Sears catalog for about $5 in 1937. [Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, by Stella Blum.] But a secretary probably could not afford to buy those $6.50 shoes.
POST SCRIPT (July 2018): Related posts are “The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Womens’ Magazines”, “A Woman’s Clothing Budget for 1924 versus 1936”, and Clothing Budget for a Married Couple, 1925.”