Monday, June 26, 2006

Prices a Gateway to the Past?

I've spent this last week in Missouri for my grandparents 60th Anniversary. I was in charge of putting together a slide show of their 60 years together. It showed their courting, wedding, them with their children, grandchildren, and vacationing over the last 6 decades. It turned out pretty well.

Of course I couldn't resist adding a touch of context to the slide show by starting out with a few historical facts from the era: For example, in 1946 Harry Truman was president, the Cards beat the Red Socks in the World Series, gas was .27 a gallon (or about 2.77 a gallon in today's money), the average home sold for $12,500 (128,400 today), and the national debt was 269 billion dollars.

While the numbers sound impressive - when not shown in today's $$$, they really aren't that much different than what they are today. Nevertheless, it is an effective way to grab an audience's attention and get them thinking historically (or at least thinking about the past). I typically do a similar thing in my survey courses, tell them some numbers that I think will get their attention before moving into the important content. There is something about numbers or maybe I mean prices/values that works to create an instant gateway between today and past. From my perspective prices are more effective than dates and most anecdotes in getting people to think about the what life was like 10 or 20 or 50 years ago.

I'm not sure this approach would work everywhere -- maybe it is only effective in a society that is driven by consumer spending and capitalism, but as a quick way to get people to put themselves in a historical context there is little more effective.

No comments: