The Mad Men Era: Cost of Living Then and Now


AMC’s “Mad Men” has come to reflect styles and trends not only in fashion, but also in our home and office lives. Our infatuation with the award-winning television show has propelled us to delve deeper into the history of that era, particularly how the affordability of housing and the cost of living have changed over the course of the last half-century.

Income Levels

By 1960, the United States was on the cusp of a golden age of economic expansion, with the median annual family income rising to $5,620, which when adjusted for inflation is comparable to an income of $44,577 in 2014 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To put that into perspective, the most recent U.S. Census Survey in 2012 revealed that the median household income in the United States was $51,371, which the BLS adjusts to $52,532 in today’s dollars.

How does that compare to the world of Mad Men? Well, consider that, at one point in the show, fictional ad man Don Draper was pulling in $45,000 a year plus a $2,500 bonus—considerably more than the average household in 1960. In 2014 dollars that translates to an annual salary well above $350,000 a year.

Housing Costs

New York has long been a city of renters, but the rental boom isn’t as widespread as you might think. In fact, of the nearly 2.9 million housing units in New York in 1960, rentals accounted for only 651,574, or 22.5%, of the total. Compared to 2000 data, there has only been a slight uptick, as rentals account for 23.4% of the more than 3.3 million housing units in New York City.

Over on the West Coast, the historical rental-sphere has shown a different progression. By 1960, rentals accounted for 51.1% of the total housing units in California. That figure has come down a bit over the last half-century, as California rentals made up 34.9% of the nearly 5 million housing units in 2000.

In terms of cost, median rent amounts have nearly doubled in California and New York since the 1960s. When normalized for 2000 dollars, the monthly rent median in 1960 for California was $389. By 2000, the median rent averaged $747. Comparatively, the median rent in New York City was $365 in 1960 and $672 in 2000.

Where we’ve seen the biggest increase over the decades is in home values. During the Mad Men era, median home values in California and New York City in 1960 were relatively on par with one another—$74,400 in California and $75,400 in New York City. However, over the latter half of the 20th century, California saw its median home values rise to $211,500 by 2000 while the New York City median value was $148,700 for that time period. By 2010-2012, the values for California and New York jump to $385,800 and $286,700, respectively.

The Living

Historically, when it comes to cost of living, prices were cheaper in the 1960s—for the most part. For starters, the cost of residential natural gas in 1968 was $1.04 per thousand cubic feet. Adjusted for 2012 dollars, that comes out to about $6.86—considerably less than what the actual price per thousand cubic feet was in 2012—$10.68.

With gas prices averaging 34 cents a gallon in 1968, the cost of hitting the open road was considerably less compared to today. When we adjust prices for 2012, that amount comes to $2.22 a gallon, a price that most Americans would jump at today.

But cooling and electric costs are another story—they’re far cheaper today. By 1968, the price for residential electricity was 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour, which would be 15.2 cents in 2012 dollars. That price is well above the what the average price per kilowatt hour was in 2012—11.9 cents.