In the autumn of 1938, Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, decided to survey their customers to see what gifts they really wanted for Christmas. Enlisting the aid of University of Pittsburgh psychologist Dr. Carroll Whitmer, the store collected 2,000 of the doctor’s surveys. Life magazine published the results.
Next to the price ranges used in this article I have placed in parenthesis the inflation adjusted 2003 dollars. According to the web site “The Inflation Calculator,” one dollar in 1938 equaled $12.25 in 2016. A product that cost one dollar in 2016 would have set you back 8 cents in 1938. The minimum hourly wage, first made law that year by the Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938, was 25 cents. So the next time you see a movie from this era and someone leaves a quarter tip, don’t think he’s cheaper than Jack Benny.
Here are the choices of Pittsburgh’s Christmas 1938 shoppers:
Men under $1 ($12.25) — Socks, handkerchiefs, and ties in that order.
Woman under $1.00 ($12.25) — Handkerchiefs led here too, followed by hosiery and cosmetics. Also listed: phonograph records, playing cards, and fresh flowers.
Men $1 to $2.50 ($12.25 to $30.63) — Ties again, followed by shirts and initialed hankies. Other gifts include: fountain pens, cartons of cigarettes, slippers, flashlights, cigarette holders, and lighters.
Women $1 to $2.50 ($12.25 to $30.63) — Stockings, underwear, cosmetics, candy, charm bracelets, bathroom towel sets, belts, scarfs, and a potted plant.
Men $2.50 to $5 ($30.63 to $61.26) — Shirts came in first, followed by gloves, pajamas, umbrellas, good liquor, and a canary.
Women $2.50 to $5 ($30.63 to $61.26) — gloves won out, with silk underwear, and handbags next. Other preferences: China, glassware, sporting goods, dresser sets, theatre tickets, and hand phones. This last item refers to the “new” telephones of the mid-to-late ’30s that contained the speaker and listening piece all in one, rather than the old stand-up cradle phone that had a hook for hanging up the listening piece.
Men $5 to $10 ($61.26 to $122.51) — Twenty percent asked for shoes. (Many shoe stores in this era had the measurements for regular customers.) Hats and sporting goods finished second and third. Also mentioned: leather wallets and new tires.
Women $5 to $10 ($61.26 – $122.51) — Top choice was “smart” handbags (like those made of alligator); second favorite, silk housecoats. Also chosen: Angora sweaters, printed pottery, food delicacies, and a pair of roller skates.
Men $10 to $25 ($122.51 to $306.28) — Most men picked lounging robes. Electric shavers placed second with older men, while younger men wanted luggage. Also rans: auto accessories, binoculars, a pedigreed dog, and a ping pong table.
Women $10 to $25 ($122.51 to $306.28) — Younger women wanted dresses; older married women wanted home furnishings and twin beds. Other choices: rugs, electrical goods, perfume, and beauty treatments.
Men $25 to $ 50 ($306.28 – $612.57) — Gift certificates for a suit of clothes placed first in this price range. Top coats and wrist watches were second. Others mentioned: phonographs, lamps, clocks, desks, golf clubs, fishing tackle, caviar, and a canoe.
Women $25 to $50 ($306.28 -$612.57) — Coats and evening gowns led the list with jewelry second. Also mentioned: good perfume, a sewing machine, a bicycle, and a tree.
Men $50 to $200 ($612.57 – $2,450.27) — “Radios with great selectivity and short-wave features are unchallenged leaders here except with married men under 30 who place furniture firsts and radios second.” Also requested armchairs, dress suits, cameras, typewriters, guns, and a cocktail bar.
Women $50 to $200 ($612.57 – $2,450.27) — Most wanted a short fur jacket or a fur-trimmed coat. In second place, single women wanted jewelry, but married women wanted furniture. Also mentioned: a cruise, a Grandfather clock with chimes, and an accordion.
Men If the Sky’s the Limit — Forty percent chose a car. In second place, the younger men wanted a house, while the older married men chose money. The older men also wanted world cruises, motor boats, diamond studs, a speed boat and a paid-up mortgage. One young man wanted a diving outfit.
Women If the Sky’s the Limit — Fur coats were chosen by one-third of the women polled. Cars, both family and sports, were second. Also mentioned: a 20-caret emerald, a rug, an airplane, a horse, a model kitchen, a piano, and last but not least — Clark Gable.