Everyone knows that manufacturing has experienced great leaps and bounds in the last century. CNC machining, aluminum, titanium, and tungsten metalworking, and, of course, plastics are just a few of the innovations in manufacturing that we've seen since 1900.
It's no secret to connoisseurs of fine antiques that "they don't make 'em like they used to", but surely such people are just Luddite blowhards, sour about the great progress that's been made since their pappy's heyday.
Of course, in 1900, things were much less expensive, but naturally that's just a product of inflation, not of any greater difficulty today in making them. Inflation is something that can't be helped, of course, as every good Progressive knows. It's a cost of the great march forward.
Things may have been cheaper then, but were they more affordable? Well... Yes, at least for the example that I'm about to show you.
By pure Providence, I have procured a page from the 1902 Sears Catalog, describing the Winchester rifles that they offer for sale. We will examine just one: Item No. 6R836, the Winchester 1894 Repeater, in .30-30 smokeless caliber with an octagon barrel. In 1902, this rifle sold for the handsome fee of $14.75, which would be more than two weeks' pay for a textile laborer at the time.
Oh, glory, that we live in such a society where you don't have to wait for months, saving your pennies, to buy a fine rifle from a big name manufacturer!
That is the 2005 Winchester catalog, which is the second to last year that they produced Winchester 1894s at the same New Haven, Connecticut plant where they had produced rifles for the past 140 years (and also conveniently before the recent economic downturn, avoiding any noise from that). As you can see, the price of the Winchester rifle, now listed as the "Model 94 Legacy Rifle Octagon" (pictures on page 21, prices on page 53) sexagintupled from 1902-2005. But, surely this is all due to inflation. When we adjust for it, it should come out about the same.
When we adjust for inflation, we find that the price of the Winchester rifle had nearly tripled by 2005.
Winchester doesn't make that particular model of rifle any more, but in 2011, Winchester re-introduced the 1894 series (produced by a Japanese company, this time). What do they cost today?
These imports are nearly four times more expensive when adjusted for inflation than their American-made counterparts from a century and a decade ago.
Well, Americans are making more money today than they did before, right?
No. Minimum wage in my home state runs over $7.50, and that's about what you'll make if you work at a fast food restaurant or gas station. At this pay grade, working 56 hours a week the new, imported Winchester rifle costs us well over three weeks' wages. Granted, you're at least less likely to be eaten by a textile mill.
Even in 2005, it wasn't really any easier to buy a New Haven Model 94. The minimum wage in my state then was a little over $5, and the Winchester rifle would still have cost you over three 56-hour weeks' wages, even before the recession.
The purpose of this article isn't to wail that all industry today sucks and that the early 1900s were soooo much better. In fact, quite a lot has gotten better since then. Just restricting it to the firearms industry, ammunition is both cheaper and better today than it was in 1900, materials advancements have greatly enhanced the reliability and durability of firearms in many cases, and brand name semiautomatic rifles can be had for less money than today's Winchester rifle (though still more than that Winchester would have cost in 1902, after inflation is accounted for).
However, it is clear that 110 years ago, we could make high quality items from machined steel and cut wood for far less than we can today. I have a number of suspicions as to why, but those will have to wait for a later post.