Price index gives glimpse of a changing society

An imaginary ‘shopping basket’ used by the British government to track the prices of commonly bought items has just been updated. The changing list shows just how far modern society has come.

Baby wipes, iPads and pineapples are in; stepladders and casserole dishes are out. It reads like an eccentric review of this year’s fashions – which, in a way, is exactly what it is.

The items come from an update of the UK government’s ‘price index.’ Each month, data is gathered from all over the country on a range of products – holidays in Spain, Indian takeaways, even ballpoint pens. By monitoring the price of the things we typically purchase, the government can gauge the average cost of living.

The price index is an important economic indicator. Keeping the correct rate of inflation (how fast prices of ordinary goods are rising) is a vital part of keeping the economy healthy.

But the index is also interesting in an unintentional way: its ever-changing ‘shopping basket’ gives a fascinating insight into how our buying habits have changed in the sixty-five years since it first began.

The first list, compiled in 1947, reveals a society less geared to comfort and convenience than today’s. Prunes, turnips and custard powder were staple foods; lamp oil was still in everyday use. Essential clothing included vintage garments like corsets and woollen sportswear, which were laboriously dried using a mangle.

The list reveals a vanished way of life. For social historians such sources are invaluable. First-hand accounts of the past often concentrate on grand characters, political intrigues and bloody battles – few think to write in depth about the humdrum stuff of everyday existence. Records like the price index give us a window into ordinary things that people took for granted.

This year’s edition portrays a very different society. Once-exotic foods like continental cheese and pineapples are now commonplace; tablet computers have now joined smart phones on the ever-expanding roll call of technological wizardry. A visitor from the past would surely find today’s Britain a fast-paced, overwhelming land of luxury.

It’s the simple things...

Oh, sigh some, for the days of yore. Sure we have better gadgets and a more exciting diet nowadays, but do washing machines and iPods really make us happier? The modern world is so complex that we seek comfort in material things. Our ancestors’ lives were more simple and slow, they say; but emotionally they were infinitely richer.

Spend a day as a 1940s housewife, other people retort – that should change your mind. There is nothing idyllic about cheap corned beef bought with ration tokens, or backbreaking hours spent washing thick and itchy clothes. And that’s not to mention the dentistry. The past, they say, is only attractive because we do not have to deal with its harsh realities.

You Decide

  1. If you were offered the chance to live in a different time, would you accept? If so, what era would you choose?
  2. Does history focus too much on the rich and powerful?

Activities

  1. How do you think the price index shopping basket will look in fifty years time? Write a list of five items that you can imagine being added.
  2. Write a diary entry from the perspective of a school pupil in 1947, which a historian could use to highlight social and technological changes since then.

Some People Say...

“Modern life is selfish and superficial.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does inflation matter?
If you read an old price list, everything seems unbelievably cheap – in 1971 a Mars bar would have set you back just two pence. This is because prices tend to rise as more money enters the economy. Usually incomes rise too, so in reality most don’t suffer. The problem comes when prices rise too fast for wages to keep up. In the worst cases, such as Zimbabwe five years ago, this causes ‘hyperinflation.’ Bags full of money were exchanged for basic goods and $100 trillion notes became common.
Could that happen today?
When the global economic crisis hit, some feared rocketing inflation. If this was ever a risk it seems largely to have been avoided. But some economists think that certain countries risk the opposite problem of falling prices and wages, causing economic slowdown.

Word Watch

Lamp oil
The lightbulb entered ordinary homes towards the end of the 19th Century and by 1947 almost every house would have been electrically lit. But it seems that many still used oil lamps as well, perhaps because of postwar energy rationing.
Mangle
Mangles are used to squeeze water from washed fabric by pressing garments between two rollers. They are usually very bulky, and operated by a hand crank.
Social historians
Traditional forms of history like political or diplomatic history deal with major national events and powerful figures. ‘Social historians’ take a different approach, examining the lives and experiences of ordinary people from the past.

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