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Life in 1960s America, By the Numbers

The following offers a snapshot of day-to-day life in 1960s America

The 1960s were some of the most significant years in American history. The decade saw the Civil Rights Movement and a rising counterculture that reimagined the shape of the American social fabric. Pop music exploded like never before with the British Invasion led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but the ’60s were also an intense era of war and political violence. 

The decade’s most monumental moments tend to be widely covered, and the sheer number of historic events during this time almost create the impression that every moment was imbued with turbulence. But while the tumult of the decade played out on the evening news in homes across America, many people were still living normal everyday lives — albeit lives that looked quite different from our modern lifestyle. The following numbers offer a snapshot of day-to-day life in 1960s America.

 42% of Adults Were Smokers 

Smoking was still widespread in the middle of the 20th century. The smoking rate in the U.S. reached a peak of 47% of adults (including 50% of doctors!) by the end of 1952. Though cigarette sales declined somewhat in 1953 and 1954 amid growing health concerns, the introduction of the filtered cigarette created a rebound. Through the early years of the 1960s, the smoking rate held steady at 42% of adults. On January 11, 1964, Surgeon General Luther L. Terry published the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, a landmark event that brought the link between smoking and disease front and center in the American consciousness. Smoking has been on an overall downward trend ever since: As of 2021, smoking has declined to 11.5% of adults.

 The Average Price of a Haircut Was $2.05

In 1966, the national average for the price of a men’s haircut was $1.95 ($19.03 in today’s currency). For women, it was $2.16 ($20.79 today) — unless an extravagant “permanent wave” was desired, which cost an average of $12.15 ($118.57 today). The permanent wave (or “perm”) was a multi-step process to make long-lasting curls, which required additional materials and could take between six to eight hours to complete, hence the premium cost. Chicago was the most expensive city for men to get a haircut in; the average price there was $2.48 ($24.20 today), while Dallas was the least expensive at $1.79 ($17.47 today). But interestingly, Chicago was the cheapest city for women’s haircuts — $2.08 ($20.30 today) for a conventional cut, and $11.27 ($109.98) for the permanent wave. The most expensive city for women was Washington, D.C., at $3.31 and $18.19 ($32.30 and $177.51, respectively). 

 72% of Adults Were Married

At the beginning of the 1960s, marriage was still a fairly unquestioned rite of passage into adulthood. The median age for brides in 1960 was 20.1, while the median age for grooms was 24.2, and the percentage of adults who were married was a large majority: 72% in 1960. But the decade brought about sweeping social changes in attitudes toward divorce, sexuality, and parenthood, creating a downward trend in marriage that persisted into the 21st century. Data collected in 2023 shows that the current median age at first marriage is 28 for women and 30 for men, and 53% of American adults are married.

 The Average Price for Most Groceries Was Under $1

A single dollar bill had a lot of buying power throughout most of the 20th century. The national average price for most grocery staples in the ’60s was less than a buck: A 5-pound bag of flour was 61 cents; a dozen eggs cost 66 cents; a pound of ground beef (which was broadly referred to as “hamburger” even when not formed into a patty) was 55 cents; and a box of generic corn flakes was 32 cents. In today’s dollars, these prices equate to $5.95, $6.44, $5.37, and $3.12, respectively. With the notable exception of eggs (which have infamously inflated in cost since 2020), these equivalent prices are right in line with what we’d expect to see at a grocery store today.

 A Three-Minute Phone Call to Someone Across the Country Cost $2 

Though many aspects of daily life are more expensive today than they were in the past,  phone service is one item that’s actually more affordable today than it was in the 1960s. During most of the landline era, phone calls to different regions incurred long-distance charges, based on the duration and distance of the call. In 1960, the cost for a three-minute call from New York to San Francisco was $2.25; it dropped to $1.75 by the end of 1967. With inflation, the $2 average for that three-minute call would be the equivalent of $19.89 today. A lengthier conversation could easily incur enough long-distance charges to surpass the cost of an entire month of cellphone service today.

 75% of Typewriters Sold Were IBM Selectrics

For most of the 20th century, the typewriter was the quintessential office item. In 1946, leading manufacturer IBM set out to improve the typewriter design that had been standard since the late 19th century. IBM engineer Horace “Bud” Beattie developed a mushroom-shaped type element to replace the basket of individual typebars that manual typewriters were equipped with; it solved the problem of typebars jamming if keys were pressed in too rapid succession. Beattie and a team of engineers refined the “mushroom printer” to a spherical shape about the size of a golf ball, which allowed for a pivoting motion that made the page more stable and less prone to small shifts that could result in unwanted slanted text. 

In 1954, the team at IBM developed a prototype of the new design. The type sphere was designed to be easily replaceable, allowing for switching out typefaces, thus giving the machine its name: Selectric. The Selectric was capable of printing 186 words per minute and accommodating keystrokes as quick as 20 milliseconds apart with no risk of jamming. It included ergonomic keys, and was available in eight color combinations. It took seven years from the completion of the prototype for the product to go to market, but when the Selectric went on sale on July 31, 1961, the buzz around it was instant. First-year sales hit 80,000, topping projections by 400%. For the rest of the decade and beyond, it became the new standard in offices, comprising 75% of all typewriters sold, and eventually a 94% market share for electric typewriters.

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