I always say that my favorite part of teaching was getting random questions from students. Sure, some were a little off the wall, but many more were pretty thought-provoking. Curious students asked questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask and I often ended up learning something from finding out the answers.
Case in point – a few years ago, I was teaching about the 1920s. I was talking about radios, automobiles, and all the fun consumerist stuff that we associate with the Roaring Twenties. Then a student raised his hand and asked, “How much did gas cost in the 1920s?”
I had no idea. But I wanted to know. So after class I went home and did some research. And I found out that, to my surprise, gas in the 20s was a lot more expensive than I thought!
Average Gas Prices in the 1920s
After poking around in some historical newspapers, I came across a Wall Street Journal article from March 8, 1923. It was about rising gas prices – sounds familiar! But it was a great source because it had a chart of gas prices in various cities for the past few years. At that time, the average price was around 20-25 cents per gallon. Might not sound like a lot, but let’s adjust that for inflation. In 1923, 25 cents would equal $3.75 in 2019. Average prices right now are below $3, so on average, gas was actually more expensive in the 20s than it is now.
But the chart also provides prices for the 1921 recession, when gas prices reached a high. We see during that time, the average price was actually 29 cents per gallon. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $4.16.
How does that compare to recent prices? Well, our 30-year-high for gas prices was in 2012, when average prices reached $3.62 per gallon. So even at that price, we were well below the highs of the 1920s.
And 29 cents was just the average. If we look closer at the chart, we see that many localities had higher average prices.
The winner? Butte, Montana!
In 1921, prices in Butte hit 33.5 cents per gallon. That comes out to $4.88 in today’s dollars. Hefty price to gas up your car!
But let’s dig a little deeper into what that would cost a car owner in the 20s. We’ll use the good ol’ Ford Model T as an example.
Gassing Up a Model T
The Model T had a 10 gallon gas tank. If you were driving in Butte in 1921 and found yourself with a near empty gas tank, you’d have to spend $3.35 to fill your tank. What’s that in 2019 dollars?
My jeep has a 13 gallon tank and when I fill up it usually takes about 11 gallons, and I never pay more than $30 to fill that tank. So gassing up your Model T in 1921 would’ve set you back more than gassing up a car nowadays.
So this is basically what happens when students ask me random questions in class. And that’s why I always liked teaching! I wouldn’t have thought to ask questions like this on my own, and I have a lot of fun researching random topics for my own enjoyment.
I break down these numbers a bit more in the YouTube video I just made on this topic. Check it out if you want more details!