How Much Did Oranges Cost a Hundred Years Ago?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, March 14, 1914:  Do get some good things to eat these days. It was oranges for this day. I had callers this afternoon.

oranges

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma’s still recuperating from her tonsillectomy on March 11. Who came to visit? . . . someone special? . . . and did he or she bring the oranges?

Oranges were considered a special treat in Pennsylvania a hundred years ago since it was expensive to ship them in from the South, but they weren’t as costly as I might have guessed.  According to the Morristown (New Jersey) Daily Record, you could buy a dozen oranges for 25¢ in 1913.

Of course there’s been lots of inflation since then. An online inflation calculator says that a 1913 dollar is now worth $23.81, so in current dollars you could buy a dozen oranges for $5.95 back then. That’s a little more than what oranges generally cost today, but not much.

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If you are interested in looking at how prices have changed across the years, you might enjoy a website that the Morris County Library  in New Jersey has which lists prices for lots of items for each decade between 1903 and 2013.

15 Responses

  1. That’s a great website at the Morris County Library.

  2. That really surprises me that oranges haven’t increased in price much. Shipping must cost way more due to gas and labour.

  3. Sheryl I have to admit I am distracted by wondering who the caller was. :)

  4. This topic both fascinates and confounds me! There are so many variables to inflation and there is never just one go-to answer for what a dollar (or pound or Guinea or pence, etc) from a given year in history would equate to in the current year.

    Inflation calculators are tricky, because markets for various goods do not fluctuate evenly. Some items increase or decrease in price rapidly and with great frequency, while others remain stable for very long periods of time. Gas prices over the last five to ten years are a perfect example. The per gallon price has incessantly gone up and down, from about $2 to $4 per gallon, back and forth a great many times in that period, with prices changing according to both the barrell price as well as local demand. We all have seen the difference between a high-traffic interstate rest stop pump price and a slightly-off-the-interstate price; sometimes as much as thirty cents (or even greater) per gallon. Home prices had skyrocketed, then plummeted, due to the overall trend of speculative buying and house “flipping,” as well as the many mortgages offered with zero down and variable interest which caused the “bubble” in the market, which burst when loans went sour, leading to foreclosures when coupled with job losses which of course had in many cases been caused by companies losing investments tied to said mortgages. Forces like this are always with us, and always create ripples in the economy which make inflation so variable across different goods and services markets. Ouch. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

    Meanwhile, certain items, such as many groceries, have stayed essentially stable over that same decade. By contrast, used cars went way up for a couple of years after the “cash for clunkers” program was implemented, but have since dropped. Different economic policies, military conflicts, domestic programs, etc., all affect the overall rates of both inflation and deflation. Grandma probably spent the same amount of money for new shoes that the previous generation had (between $1.50 and $4 for basic, sturdy but not too fancy pair of ladies’ shoes), but the introduction of automobiles and household appliances which ran on gasoline motors (sewing machines, for example) may have had a big influence on petroleum prices in the early 20th century.

    There are many different calculators, and generally historians will use several sources to determine a rough equivalency, including primary documents such as newspaper ads from the location and era in question. You might also want to look at the going rate for day labor in the location; that tends to be a more reliable indicator than anecdotal pricing of goods, which can also fluctuate seasonally (more so than labor). Sarah Utoff (Sarah’s Notebook blog) wrote extensively about this very question recently and offers links to many different calculators as well as gives one of the best explanations I’ve ever read as to how this complicated topic can be explored and understood against the buying power of today’s money.

    But my real question is: wouldn’t the citric acid in the oranges really hurt a raw throat that just underwent tonsillectomy??? ;)

    • I totally agree that a general inflation calculator has many limitations when trying to compare prices across years–and that it gets even more confounded when trying to use it to accurately estimate price changes for a specific commodity. I often wish that I had more time to do additional research before I write posts like this one, so I really appreciate it when you and others add additional information. Thank you!

      You mentioned a post in Sarah’s Notebook blog about inflation calculators. Other readers may also be interested in reading what she wrote. Here is the link:

      http://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/100-in-laura-ingalls-wilders-lapdesk/

  5. :-) very interesting…thank you! Will have to check out the Morris County Library website.

  6. Lots of additional info today. And, I also think the juice would not feel good on her throat.

  7. My grandfather always treated my mom with orange slice candy. Helena’s eating much healthier.

  8. I’m glad Grandma had some company to help pass the time while she recuperated.

  9. I would think that oranges would burn a sore throat…
    Diana

  10. Oranges, although close to the same price in 1913 as now, may have been rarer seen “up north” and probably considered a real treat. Wonderful that Helena had callers during her recuperation and they probably brought oranges.

  11. What a treat for her! I wonder if her throat is feeling much better now.

  12. I love the details you included about orange prices. Cool info.

  13. When he was a boy, my dad used to get an orange for Christmas each year. It was a real treat for him!

  14. I recall reading in Laura Ingalls Wilder series that Laura attended a party when she was a teenager and had her first taste of an orange. It really struck me about the things we take for granted now, and how rare and special they once were.

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