The Good Old Days Are Now
David Henderson at Econlog points to an interesting website that has an online archive of Radio Shack catalogs back to 1939. David comments, "Choose any date earlier than 10 years ago and you get a feel for just how much our standard of living has increased. The items are generally what we regard as junk--and they're expensive."
One example from the 1964 catalog is the "Moderately priced, excellent stereo system" pictured above for $379.95. That doesn't seem too expensive, except that those are 1964 dollars, and the average wage then was only about $2.50 (data here). Measured by the cost of work time required at the average hourly wage, that "moderately priced" stereo would have required about 152 hours of work (almost an entire month, ignoring taxes) in 1964 to earn enough income to purchase the stereo equipment.
Working 152 hours at today's average hourly wage of about $19, the average American today could earn almost $3,000, and could purchase something today that is infinitely superior to the 1964 stereo (an entire home theater system with a large-screen TV, a few laptop computers and iPods for the entire family?). Or we could alternatively say that today's consumer only has to work about 5-6 hours to earn enough income to purchase an iPod, nowhere close to the 152 hours worked by a consumer in 1964, for a personal stereo system that most would prefer to the 1964 model.
Here's one other way to see how expensive that stereo system was in 1964: Working at the minimum wage of $1.15 per hour in 1964, it would take 330 hours of work for a teenager to earn enough income to purchase that stereo system (almost the entire summer working 30 hours per week for 11 weeks). Today a teenager working at the minimum wage of $7.25 could earn enough income in about two days to purchase an iPod.
Considering how expensive stereo equipment was back in the 1960s (the $380 model was considered "moderately priced" so there were probably many much more expensive models), it probably makes sense that Radio Shack offer many "do-it-yourself" kits to build your own stereo equipment (and later kits for computers). In today's world of iPods and affordable computer and electronic equipment, who would even think of buying a kit to build your own stereo system or computer?