In The Price, the Franz family is forced to deal with the practical and emotional results of financial decisions made during the Great Depression. The play takes place in 1968, and money dominates the conversation. But the value of money changes over time. Today, the $1200 that Solomon offers Victor for the family’s old furniture isn’t worth what it was in 1968. And in 1968, that $1200 wasn’t worth what it was in the 1920s, when the furniture was new.
- Let’s break down the relative value of some important numbers in the play.
- $1 in 1934 would have the purchasing power of $2.60 in 1968, and $17.70 today.
- The Franz dining room table cost $1200 or $1300 in 1921. That’s the equivalent of spending about $15,900 to $17,200 today. The family was well off back then!
- Victor asked Walter for $500 to finish his college degree in 1938. In today’s dollars that’s equivalent to $7,100.
- Solomon offers Victor $1200 for the family’s old furniture. Today, that’s equivalent to $8,170.
- Walter tells Victor they should donate the furniture, and he’ll write it off on his taxes, then they’ll split the tax savings. That savings—$6000 in 1968—is equivalent to $40,900 today.
The relative value of money isn’t the only thing that has changed in the past 80 years. What Americans spend money on has also changed dramatically. The amount of money available for discretionary spending increased markedly during the twentieth century, both across the nation and in New York City specifically. This opened the door for the rise in consumerism, which helped shift how we, as human beings, assess our purpose and value in society.
Back in 1934, the average NYC family spent 76.2% of their household income on basic necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. Around the time the play takes place, in NYC only 64.2% of income was spent on the basics. In 2003, that number had dropped to 56.7%.
The United States’ early economic system was agrarian, or farm-based. Most of what was consumed--food, cloth, furniture, tools, etc.—was produced on the farm or acquired from other locals through a bartering system. Unnecessary purchases weren’t an option. Thrift, frugality, and efficiency were valued. Religion also played a role in shaping American ideas about consumption: Puritans, Quakers, and others believed that emphasis on luxury or material goods distracted from the proper focus on God, and some even regulated what congregation members could purchase or wear.
Three important things happened in the late nineteenth century that changed American consumer behavior.
- Factories, in which goods could be mass produced, were developed.
- Millions of people immigrated, creating a large pool of low-cost labor for those factories.
- The government invested in transportation infrastructure like railroads, making it easier to move goods across the nation.
Suddenly, there were inexpensive goods available for purchase, and wage-earners, no matter where they came from or their social class, could aspire to own them. Everyone could work towards a lifestyle of security, comfort, and beauty. In many ways mass production was a democratizing force. It also created the current definition of a healthy economy: in order to sustain production and employment, more consumer demand for goods had to be created.
Newspapers and magazines, which became cheap and widely available in the late nineteenth century, put advertisements in front of the American public. The number of advertisements produced annually quadrupled between 1914 and 1929, the years Victor and Walter were growing up. Beginning in 1922, many of these ads ran on the radio, a new invention.
The U.S. became a nation of boundless acquisition of things. People began to measure success through acquisition of material goods, rather than through educational, creative, or professional achievement, civic contributions, or family or community engagement.
The Great Depression and WWII shifted the U.S. away from a focus on economic growth. But after the war U.S. citizens went on a production and consumption binge, eager to shake off years of depression and wartime rationing. Consumer spending, which helped the economy, was considered patriotic. The rise of suburbia, fueled by the G.I. Bill’s home loan program, encouraged purchase of cars and household appliances.
In order to keep the need for consumer goods high, products became, as Solomon puts it, “disposable,” through planned obsolescence or change in fashion. Television became popular in the 1950s, exposing American families to more advertising than ever before—advertising that encouraged them to keep up with changing fashions and new conveniences. By 1968, the United States was the most materially-rich society in world history.
Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage