28 February 2015, By Tatiana Colless

What Would $10,000 Buy You In 1920?

7 min read

We know the Roaring 20’s by the movies like The Great Gatsby, Chicago and Once Upon A Time In America – the era of jazz, gangsters, luxurious lifestyle and extravagant parties. After the hardships of WWI, 1920’s saw rapid economic growth in many western countries. With the increased wealth and introduction of consumer credit, came the society change towards consumerism and acquisition of luxury items. There was an urge for women to fit households with the latest technology appliances, car registrations went up, while the rise of flapper fashion, motion pictures, fast food diners and speakeasies (dance clubs) brought in the new recreational expenses.

We also know the era as the time of Prohibition, but not just on alcohol – lottery operations were prohibited in United States for 70 years (1894 – 1964)! In UK, the lotteries were illegal between 1698 and 1934! In Australia chance lotteries were outlawed since 1844, however a loophole was found for the sweepstakes to be based around horse racing, and as a result, the first official Australian lottery held in 1881 at the Sydney Cup. In 1920’s the draws for outright cash took prominence and Tattersalls’ £2,500 ($10,000 = around $160,000 today) first prize became renowned as every Australian’s dream windfall.

With an average annual income of about £200 ($750 = around $12,000 today) and prices on most everyday commodities lower in comparison to today, $10,000 would have been an astonishing amount of money. Not quite enough to gain the equal of the Great Gatsby status, but it would set up an average family with most things they would want for a very comfortable, higher class lifestyle. So what would $10,000 buy you in 1920?

Build Your Own Home Kit – $1,500 – $3,000 ($24,000-48,000 today)

1920 Sterling Homes The Vernon Home Kit

These home kits were very popular, ranging in size, number of rooms. They came with everything needed to complete the property including a block of land, plans, lumber, roofing, doors, windows, flooring, varnish and paint. All you needed was a pair (or few!) of hands. Existing dwellings were not as popular during this decade due to the affordability of the new, more modern & comfortable homes. The typical home of 1920’s suburbia and rural Australia were low-cost timber cottages, consisting of 3 bedrooms, kitchen/living area, rainwater tank and an outhouse toilet.

Automobiles (yes, not cars!) – $500-$2,000 ($8,000-$32,000 today)

1920's New York Gentlemen with an Automobile

The automobile was first invented in 1885, and for over 30 years they were the seen as a symbol of wealth and luxury. Most models included two or four seats, four gear transmission, electrical starter system, up to 110 horsepower engine, wire wheels, and hydraulic shock absorbers. Until the cheaper models became widely available in the late 1920s; most of the ordinary folks still used the horse drawn carriages, which would cost you around $30 ($480 today) plus horse at $40 ($640).

Caravan – $1,000 ($16,000 today)

1920's Vintage Caravan

In the 1920s, caravanning was considered the height of luxury, with only the wealthy being able to afford the large, powerful cars required to tow the cumbersome caravans. The first elegant Bertram Hutchings Voyageur caravans included a curtained-off lavatory, an upholstered sofa bed, carpet, a wooden clock, display cabinet and a Lissen wireless radio.

Living / Dining Room Furniture Set – $145-$400 ($2,320-$6,400 today)

In the 1920s, living room furniture sets were made of good quality timber. These sets often included a number of coordinating pieces, such as an armchair, reception chair, arm rocker, tabourette, bookend, and table. An eight piece dining set that was sold during this period included a buffet, oblong extension table, five dinner chairs and a host chair.

Bedroom Furniture Set – $50-$150 ($800-$2,400 today)

1920s Bedroom Furniture

A 1920s bedroom contained pieces made of sturdy, quality materials such as oak, walnut, cedar, or mahogany woods. Beds were either metal or carved wood frames along with corresponding bedroom dresser or vanity pieces, always including a metal spring mattress.

Fridge – $285 ($4,560 today)

Kelvinator Fridge 1920 newspaper ad

1920’s saw the first self-contained units, similar to modern fridges, released by Frigidaire Electric, General Motors, and Kelvinator Fridge. These fridges would cost around half of the annual income of a standard family. Fridges were not available in shops, and the only way to buy them was via a dedicated salesman who visited your home.

Washing Machine – $99.75 ($1,595 today)

1920 Thor Washing Machine

The latest and best in 1920s washing machine design, the Gyrator. This time-saving home appliance was easy to move and featured the latest clothes cleaning technology to prevent damage to your clothes, a gyrator with no centre post and an attached wringer made from the finest semi soft rubber. Fancy!

Piano – $485 ($7,760 today)

1920s Piano Lesson

Finest quality player pianos were made from walnut veneer. One other interesting fact was the weight – over 362kgs!!

Basic Self-Assemble Radio – $120 ($1,920 today)

1920 Brox Sisters Radio

Today we can listen to the radio in our cars on the internet with our phones, back in the 20s there were quite a few components needed to assemble a working radio. Main console – $60+, Speaker – $8.95, Antenna – $2.75, Battery – $20 or Battery Charger – $30.

Luxury Electric Radiola – $495 ($7,920 today)

The RCA luxury electric radiola 1920

The RCA Radiola was the ultimate radio model – the Hand Built Super Heterodyne All Electric Radio, which included speakers, inbuilt antenna for better reception in congested broadcasting areas, and direct socket-power operation. And it was a solid mahogany hand-crafted cabinet. Definitely a luxury item!

Jewellery – $1,985 – $3,000 ($31,760-$48,000 today)

Baume & Mercier Baignoire Watch 1920

Although plastic costume jewellery took rise in 1920’s due to its cheap production costs, lightness and simplicity, the wealthy have always favoured gold, platinum and precious stones. Gruen Guild Watches and Elgin Watches were popular among the wealthy in the 1920’s. Models such as the top of the range Gruen Bracelet Watch (1927) featured a diamond filled full-length bracelet, 18-jewel Dietrich Gruen Extra Precision movement, and an iridium platinum case for $1,985.

Holiday Day Trips – $1-$5 ($16-$80 today)

Omnibus Day Tour 1920s

Long before the package holiday, a popular way to spend a “bank holiday” was to see the sites by bus. These trips were organised by the companies for their workers. Day trippers could travel to several destinations around their local area (usually included visiting natural sites like waterfalls, bays or valleys and having a picnic) for between five pence and one pound (around $1 to $5), a large sum for a common working man at the time, reflecting the novelty of travelling by omnibus. Not surprising that for a special day trip like that, men would sport their best suits and women their finest hats.

Passenger Ship Fares – $120-$3,480 ($1,920-$55,680 today)


1920s Ocean Liner

First class – A single person berth in first class cost between $120 ($1,920 today), and up to $3,480 ($55,680 today) for a parlour suite and small private deck. First class passengers enjoyed amenities including a gymnasium, a squash court, salt water swimming pool, Turkish baths, a barbershop, kennels for dogs, open and enclosed promenades.
Second class – An average price was $52 ($832 today). Second class passengers had their own library, a private smoking room for men, children could read the children’s books or play deck quoits and shuffleboard on the second class promenade.
Third class – average of $28 ($500 today), ticket prices often included rail travel to the departure ports depending on their place of origin. Third class passengers didn’t have any special amenities and were locked off from accessing 2nd or 1st class passenger decks. This is where the modern term “cattle class” takes its origins.

Airship / Dirigible Journey – $400-$1500 ($6,400-$24,000 today)

Zeppelin Baia de Guanabara Rio de Janeiro

While the era of the planes didn’t start till 1930s, the first commercial air passenger flights were provided by DELAG (German Airship Transportation Corporation) founded by Graf Zeppelin, the father of the blimp. In 1920’s the company operated 103 commercial flights in Germany, 136 South Transatlantic flights and one round the world flight in 1929. The “domestic” flight would cost from $400pp double room occupancy one way and take 8-12 hours. An “international” journey from Frankfurt to Rio de Janeiro would take 2 ½ days and cost $1,500pp double.

Orient Express Luxury Train Journey – $400-$800 ($6,400-$12,800 today)

Venice Orient Express Train 1920s

The Orient Express is one of the most luxurious rail journeys in the world and the marks the golden age of luxury travel in the 1920s. The original “Express d’Orient” service began in 1883, originating in Paris and taking four days to travel across Europe to present-day Istanbul. The carriages featured ornate marquetry and elaborate inlaid wood designs, as well as a small washbasin and a convertible couch that transforms into bunk beds at night. Each carriage is serviced by an attendant, serving tea & making up the beds. The train featured the first restaurant cars in the world. With designer menus and silver service, as well as whiskey lounge for men and cocktail lounge for ladies made for a journey of a lifetime indeed!

Race Horse – $5,000 ($78,000 today)

1920's racehorse

Very much like today, the price of a race horse depended foremost on its pedigree. Those sired and damed by prime race horses, would be usually sold as yearlings and at this time would fetch around $5,000 (for at least 4 generation bloodline). However, if trained and cared for well, such horse could yield earnings of $300,000 ($4.8 million today) in prize money for the duration of its racing career.

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