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Now & Then: A Lot Has Changed Since 1931

Just Look at the Changes We’ve Experienced in the Past 90 Years!

In 1931, the world was in the early years of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the late 1930s. The highest U.S. federal income tax rate was 25%, though it would increase to 63% in 1932. The economy was in crisis, and in the United States, 2,500 banks failed.

Average Price of a New Car

In 1931, the average price of a new car was $640. The top three automakers were General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler—still familiar names in the auto industry!

Average Price of a New Home

The average price of a new home in 1931 was $6,790. Popular styles included Colonial, Cape Cod, and Tudor. Many homes from the 1930s featured slate roofs, glass doorknobs, and arched doorways.

Average Price of Rent

Before 1950, most U.S. families rented their homes. Renters in 1931 paid an average of $18 per month to their landlord in rent.

Average Price of a Gallon of Gas

In 1931, the average price for a gallon of gas was 10 cents. Filling stations were popping up all over the country, where an attendant would pump gas for you. The self-service stations we have today didn’t become popular until 1973.

Average Price of a Movie Ticket

Going to the movie theater provided a brief escape from the crisis of the Great Depression. Popular genres included musicals, comedies, gangster films, westerns, and thrillers. The average cost for a movie ticket in 1931 was 35 cents.

Average Price of a Postage Stamp

In 1931, the Railway Mail Service handled nearly all the non-local mail in the United States. Postal clerks sorted the mail on trains as they moved across the country. Postal carriers delivered packages and letters by automobile. The cost of a postage stamp in 1931 was 2 cents.

Average Price of Loaf of Bread

In 1931, the average cost for a loaf of bread was 8 cents. When a loaf of bread became stale and hard, people made “cooked bread” by pouring olive oil, salt, and boiling water over the bread to soak it, then mashing it up.

Average Price of a Gallon of Milk

The average price of a gallon of milk in 1931 was 26 cents. Milk was considered a kind of superfood, and the government advised kids to drink up to a quart a day. Popular Depression-era recipes that used milk were creamed chip beef on toast, cold milk soup (milk, bananas, and sugar), and hot milk cake.

Average Price of a Pound of Hamburger

In 1931, the average price for a pound of hamburger was 11 cents. Home cooks made “Depression burgers” with bread, eggs, and vegetable or meat scraps. An Oklahoma restaurant owner began making onion burgers, made up mostly of shredded onions to keep his burgers affordable. Fried onion burgers are still a beloved Oklahoma specialty.

Average National Wage

Unemployment was at record highs during the Great Depression, and the average national wage in 1931 was $1,850 per year.

Interest Rates

With the U.S. experiencing widespread banking panics, the average interest rate in 1931 was low—2.64%—and it would drop even further to 1.73% just two years later.

Inflation Rates

In 1931, the inflation rate was -8.98%, which means that supply was high, and demand was low. Periods of negative inflation (deflation) are rare but were seen during the Great Depression. $100 in 1931 dollars had the purchasing power of approximately $1,771 today.


In 1931, the population of the United States was 122 million. By comparison, today’s population is over 332 million. That’s an increase of 177%!

Phone Providers

In 1931, phone extensions were just becoming popular, allowing you to use the phone in multiple rooms in your home. To call a friend or family member, you picked up the phone’s receiver and dialed their number. If they lived outside your town or city, you would dial “0” and ask an operator to connect you.

A Few Highlights from 1931 You Might Have Forgotten

A lot was happening in 1931, including these other historical events.

The Construction of the Lake of the Ozarks was Completed

Construction on Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks began in 1929 and was completed in 1931. At the time, it was the largest man-made lake in the United States, with 1,150 miles of shoreline. It continues to be a very popular spot for tourism and is also the setting for a Netflix series.

The Dust Bowl Begins and Lasts Until 1939

During the Dust Bowl, the Great Plans experienced droughts, dust storms, and soil erosion that devastated farms. Major ecological damage was done to the Midwestern and Southern Plains areas of the U.S.

The Star-Spangled Banner Becomes Our National Anthem

The lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are based on a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. The music was originally a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith in the late 1700s. Prior to its adoption in 1931, the U.S. had never had an official national anthem.

The Cult Classic Movie Frankenstein Premieres in Movie Theaters

After its opening in December 1931, Frankenstein premiered to positive reviews and is widely regarded as one of the best films of the year. Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster continues to impact popular culture.