PRICES IN AUSTRALIA AT THE BEGINNING AND END OF THE 20th CENTURY
This article takes a brief look at how the relative prices of many of today's common items have changed since Federation. To assist in making comparisons, 1901 prices have been mulitiplied by a factor of 50 to take account of general inflation. This factor is derived from table 28.5, which shows that the purchasing power of one pound (or $2.00) in 1901 is equivalent to about $100 in 2001. The 1901 prices in this article (which were originally measured in pounds, shillings and pence) have been converted to decimal amounts. Likewise, imperial measurements of quantity have been converted to their metric equivalents.
In 1901, the average weekly wage for an adult male was about $4.35 for a working week of almost 50 hours, which after inflation equates to $217.50. However, wages have grown much faster than inflation, with the average weekly ordinary time earnings for adult males in May 2000 being about $830.00 for around 37 hours work, in far better conditions.
The price of gold has often been used as a measure of inflation. At Federation, the price of gold was $8.50 an ounce, or $425.00 in today's money. The actual price of gold in 1999-2000 averaged about $460.00 an ounce, showing that it has generally maintained pace with inflation.
The basket of items used in 1901 to calculate the equivalent of today's CPI consisted of a number of food items, a few laundry products such as starch, 'blue' (a laundry whitener) and soap, candles for lighting, kerosene for heating and house rents. Although the brands and range of products have changed over time, many of the items commonly used at the turn of century are still everyday items. However, in many cases there will have been changes in quality, presumably for the better.
A look at some common food items shows that some are relatively more expensive today, some are relatively cheaper and some are about the same. In 1901 a loaf of bread cost about 2 cents (equivalent to $1.00 today), while the actual price today is about $2.30; milk was 3 cents a litre ($1.50) compared with $1.40 today; 180 grams of tea cost 6 cents ($3.00) compared with $3.40; potatoes were 2 cents ($1.00) a kilogram compared with $1.30; eggs were 12 cents a dozen ($6.00) compared with $2.90, and rump steak was 14 cents a kilogram ($7.00) compared with $12.50 a century later.
A man's cotton business shirt cost about 85 cents (or $42.50 today after inflation), while a pair of ladies shoes was about $1.45 ($72.50). These items could be purchased for comparable prices today.
The average weekly rent for a three bedroom house in 1901 was $1.30, equivalent to about $65.00 today. The actual value today varies depending on location, but the average of 8 capital cities for a three bedroom house is about $250 a week. In the house, a metal-framed double bed, mattress, a pair of blankets and two pillows cost about $12.10 ($605.00) in 1901. Today, you could expect to pay upwards of $830.00.
At the time of Federation, motor cars were almost unheard of. Most people relied on public transport or walking to get around. While walking was free, a return train trip, travelling first class, from Sydney to Penrith was 60 cents ($3.00). Today, the same return trip costs $12.80. In 1901 such a journey was considered to be a day excursion, whereas today people commute regularly between Penrith and Sydney for work. Bicycles were starting to be seen on the streets, but were a luxury item for most people. A new bicycle at about $31.00 ($1,550.00) cost the equivalent of more than seven weeks wages, whereas today you can buy a good quality bicycle for about $320.00, less than half a week's wages.
Although wine was not as popular in 1901 as it is today, people still enjoyed a drink. A bottle of whisky cost 38 cents, or $19.00 after inflation. Today you would pay about $26.00 for a bottle of popular brand scotch whisky. For beer drinkers, only full strength beer was available. A carton of a dozen bottles cost 70 cents in 1901, or $35.00 after inflation, whereas the actual price today is about $28.00. For the smokers, a packet of cigarettes was 5 cents ($2.50) whereas today you pay about $11.20. Of course, cigarettes carried no health warnings in 1901. In fact, an advertisement for a brand of cigarettes appearing in an issue of the Sydney Morning Herald of the time carried the endorsement that they were "guaranteed not to harm the throat or lungs" and, perhaps more disconcertingly, "recommended by doctors".
For recreation, there are far more choices today than there were a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, there are still some common forms of amusement. A newspaper cost 1 cent in 1901, or 50 cents after inflation, whereas the actual cost of a daily newspaper today is about $1.00. A new release novel cost about 25 cents ($12.50) compared with an actual price of about $45.00 for a hard cover new release today, although of course paperbacks are often available at cheaper prices. A concert at the Tivoli cost was 75 cents ($37.50) in 1901, much the same as the cost of a concert today (about $40). Admission to a game of football in 1901 was 10 cents ($5.00), considerably cheaper than the $21.70 you would pay today. However, some things do not change much-Essendon won the 1901 VFL Premiership and the 2000 AFL Premiership!
Table 28.7 summarises the costs of a common 'basket' of goods and services in 1901 and today.
Australian Bureau of Statistics:
28.7 Wages and price - 1901 and 2000
|Average weekly wage, adult males |
|Gold (1oz) |
|Loaf of bread |
|Flour (2kg) |
|Sugar (2kg) |
|Coffee (150g) |
|Tea (180g) |
|Rice (1kg) |
|Butter (500g) |
|Potatoes (1kg) |
|Onions (1kg) |
|Rump steak (1kg) |
|Eggs (1 dozen) |
|Bacon (1kg) |
|Jam (500g) |
|Milk (1 litre) |
|Men’s cotton shirt |
|Men’s trousers’ |
|Women’s shoes (1 pair) |
|Rent on 3 bedroom house (1 week) |
|Double bed, mattress, blankets and pillows |
|Train trip |
|Whisky (1 bottle) |
|Carton of beer (1 dozen 750ml bottles) |
|Packet of cigarettes |
|Soap (600g) |
|Cough medicine (200ml) |
|Daily newspaper |
|New release novel |
|Game of football |
|Source: See references. |
Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics:
- Average Retail Prices of Selected Items (6403.0).
- Average Weekly Earnings, States and Australia (6302.0).
Coopers Brewery Ltd.
Sydney Morning Herald 1901, various issues.
The Age 1901, various issues.
The Advertiser 1901, Adelaide, various issues.
- Labour and Industrial Branch Report No. 1, Prices, Price Indexes and Cost of Living in Australia, December 1912;
- Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 21, 1901-1928.