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South Australian History: Prices in Australia - then and now

This guide covers a range of topics relating to the history of South Australia, including the South Australian Company, researching Aboriginal history in South Australia, mines and mining, and the South Australian experience of religion and education

Newspapers of the time

By browsing through newspapers of the time, the price of certain items can be found. For example, a second-hand Holden car or a three bedroom house at Norwood can be found in the classified advertisements of The Advertiser. Some commonly advertised items such as clothing can be found in the advertisements distributed throughout the paper. The Library has an extensive collection of Australian newspapers, back copies of which are held on microfilm. Further information is available on Newspapers.

The Library has an index to The Advertiser for the period 1932 to 1965. Entries under the subject heading Prices - Australia are few before 1945 but increase after that time, and are then subdivided to include references to Prices - South Australia.

The website Trove has digitised newspapers and can be used to browse through Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954 online.

More contemporary newspaper articles (approx. 2000 onwards) can be accessed via the State Library's subscription databases. Read about Home access to eResources on our website. 

Government price regulation

The Australian and South Australian government's budget papers are published as Parliamentary Papers. Parliamentary debate of the Budget can often give the more practical detail required by enquirers, such as actual price changes rather than the amount of tariff or excise changes recorded in the Budget Papers.

There are also the regulatory bodies such as the Commonwealth of Australia's Prices Surveillance Authority 1983-1995 and its predecessor the Prices Justification Tribunal 1973-1981.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was formed on 6 November 1995 by the merger of the Trade Practices Commission and the Prices Surveillance Authority. It was active in monitoring price changes attendant to the introduction of Australia's Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1 July 2000. Annual reports of the ACCC and other reports which are tabled in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia are formally published as Parliamentary Papers which are readily available in major Australian libraries and in many overseas libraries.

Historically the Commonwealth Government's Tariffs Board 1921-1973 and the Industries Assistance Commission 1973 - 1990 reported extensively on a diverse range of industries including fruit, chemicals, plastics, luggage, grain harvesters and parts, electric motors, and so on. When it became the Industry Commission it began to report at a broader level such as that of the automotive industry in Australia and the clothing and textiles industry. Latterly it has become the Productivity Commission and changed focus yet again. Reports from all of these organisations have been published as Australian Parliamentary Papers.

Individual reports from the above bodies presented to the South Australian and Commonwealth parliaments can be identified and located with the aid of the Index to parliamentary papers of South Australia(South Australia. Parliament, Adelaide, S. Aust. : Govt. Printer) and the Index to the papers presented to Parliament / The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia( Canberra : Government printer) respectively.

Check GovPubs: the Australian Government Publications Guide for details of the parliamentary papers and budget papers of the other Australian states.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission(ACCC) Media Releases

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Researching prices

Historical researchers and students often have difficulty in establishing the price of a given article at a particular time. Much everyday information is recorded in ephemeral sources that are not easy to access. This guide gives an indication of the variety of resources held in the State Library which document prices. Where significant resources are not held in the Library, sufficient information is provided for readers to pursue those resources independently.   

The subject heading Cost and standard of living in the Library Catalogue is further subdivided by subheadings such as history, measurement, research and statistics or the geographic subdivisions Australia, South Australia and so on. Related subject headings include Budgets, personal; Consumer price indexes; Food prices; Prices; Purchasing power; Rent; Saving and thrift.

John Burnett's History of the cost of living 1969 is a detailed 'history of what people consume and the ways in which they spend their earnings . . . tracing the history of the cost of living in England from the Middle Ages to the mid 1960s'. The book is well indexed and includes an extensive reading list.

There is an interesting international website Current value of old money which refers to a large range of websites and printed sources.

How to calculate prices using ABS indices for estimates

A useful resource for responding to requests for Australian prices historically is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) listing of Retail price index numbers in the Year book Australia. The Special article: Prices in Australia at the beginning and end of the twentieth century in the 2001 edition has a comprehensive chapter on Prices and page 833 of the 2003 edition gives indexed figures for the period from 1850 to 2001 adjusted to conform with what is now referred to as the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The index numbers provide reasonable estimates for prices of comparable items at different times given one known price for the item. It is an estimate because not all prices have changed at the same rate.

For example, for currency conversions from A$ in 1969 to A$ in 1998 the index numbers are 302 in 1969 and 2159 in 1998. The estimated 1998 equivalent of A$1 in 1969 is therefore A$2159 divided by 302 which equals A$7.15.

Please note: In the equations shown below, where a figure is shown as 302/2159 this indicates that 302 is divided by 2159, and x indicates multiplication.

Example 1 Example 2
Converting 1998 to 1969 prices Converting 1971 to 1998 prices
  $35 in 1998 (2159) $X in 1998 (2159) $X in 1969 (302) $15 in 1971 (332)   X = 35/1 x 302/2159 = $4.90 X = 15/1 x 2159/332 = $97.55


For dates prior to the introduction of decimal currency in Australia on 14 February 1966 it is safest to do the calculation in pre-1966 'virtual dollars' (A$) or post-1966 'virtual pounds' (A ), and leave the A 1 = A$2 conversion factor until last when it should be evident whether you need to multiply by 2 or divide by 2 to get your answer.

Example 3 Example 4
Converting dollars to pounds Converting pounds to dollars
  $45 in 1998 (2159) $X in 1998 (2159) X in 1958 (233) 12 in 1941 (89)   X = 45/1 x 233/2159 x 1/2 = 2.4 X = 12/1 x 2159/89 x 2/1 = $582.20


To extrapolate figures for more recent years use the ABS monthly Consumer Price Index publication (ABS No. 6401.0). The March quarter 2000 issue of ABS 6401.0 gives the CPI 'Weighted average of eight capital cities index number for all industry groups' for March 2000 as 125.2 where the base is 1989-90 = 100.00. The 'Retail price index number' given for 1990 in Year book Australia 2000 is 1839. Therefore the corresponding figure for March 2000 is 125.2 divided by 100.00 multiplied by 1839 (i.e. 2302.428 or more realistically 2302 to the nearest unit).

As an example, an item purchased in 1931 (index number 78) for A$20 would now cost roughly (A$2302 divided by 78 multiplied by 20 i.e. A$590.2564103 which can be multiplied by 2 to convert to dollars i.e. A$1180.5128) A$1180.50. Australia no longer has coinage below the 5c denomination.

The monthly Consumer Price Index ABS 6401.0 also provides price indices specific to Australian capital cities and to the food, clothing, housing, household equipment and operation, transportation, alcohol and tobacco, health and personal care and recreation and education industries. These are the components of the ABS 'Weighted average of eight capital cities index number for all industry groups' commonly accepted to be the Australian Consumer Price Index.

Other price indices

Other location-specific and industry- or service-specific price indices are also available in commercial publications such as Rawlinson's Australian construction handbook held from 1983 onwards and Spon's Asia Pacific construction costs handbook 1994.

For some enquiries a systematic search for the actual price may be required and some of the following publications may be of assistance

Price lists for books

Some industry sectors publish regular price lists. For example book prices are well documented in publications extensively held in the Library such as:

  • the American publication Books in print held from 1948 onwards
  • the British publication Whitaker's books in print and its precursor Whitaker's annual catalogue of books held from 1800 onwards
  • Australian books in print held from 1956 onwards
  • all now subsumed into the CD-ROM product Global books in print.

Periodical subscription costs over time are documented in the American Ulrich's international periodicals directory held from 1965 to 1991, Australian periodicals in print 1987-92 and its successor Periodicals in print: Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and in Margaret Gee's Australian media guide held from 1970 onwards. See also our guide Valuation of books and other printed items.

Price lists for used cars and trucks

Current and original prices of used cars and trucks in Australia are documented in:

  • Our Auto complete: passenger and commercial vehicles from 1960 (Glass's Guide) subscription was cancelled 14-08-2007. Glass's Automotive Business Intelligence have been in business since 1933 and maintain their own website for those wishing to purchase their publications and/or services direct. They have merged with Eurotax as EurotaxGlass's Group, Europe's leading supplier of automotive business intelligence across 28 countries
  • The Kelley Blue Book (not held in the Library) and Kelley Blue Book website is an American counterpart to the Glass's guides, and began in 1926 as The blue book of motor car values. Some pricing services are available through their Internet site.

Publications from professional associations

Businesses usually maintain an awareness of agreed prices for services or stock through their professional associations. In many cases prices are regularly listed in the association's newsletter. Some South Australian examples are as follows.

State Retailer has been produced by the State Retailers Association of South Australia under this name since 1999. It lists prices for batteries, biscuits, cakes, cordials, cigarette papers, razor blades, confectionery, frozen foods, milk drinks and so on. It has had several name changes:

  • Mixed business: official organ of the South Australian Mixed Business Association 1958 - 1964
  • South Australian Mixed Business Association journal 1974 to 1986
  • Independent food retailer 1986 -1992
  • Small retailer 1992 - 1999.

The Retail Liquor Industry Council of South Australia's Licensees' liquor guide contains information about availability of liquor products, names of producers and/or distributors, maximum retail prices and so on. The Library holds this publication from 1975 to1993. There does not appear to be a currently published listing of South Australian liquor prices but these are often found, along with petrol prices in the government's budget papers.

The South Australian storekeepers journal contains price lists for drinks, grocery, hardware, ice cream, medicine, smallgoods and tobacco, bread, cigarettes, sandwiches, milk, frozen foods and so on. The Library holds this publication from 1917 to 1977, up to 1953 being called South Australian storekeepers and grocers journal.

Tobacco journal: official organ of the Retail Tobacco Sellers' Association of South Australia listed prices for the full range of tobacco products but has not survived the decline in the tobacconist trade attendant on the rise of supermarkets in recent years. The Library holds incomplete issues from 1935- 1974.

Commercial publications and mail order catalogues

The Library catalogue lists over 160 items under the subject heading Commercial Catalogs South Australia. These are generally single publications only rather than sets of periodical publications and they do not always contain price information. Other useful examples such as McPherson's Limited's For engineers, founders and factories : a catalogue held for 1923 and 1926 are catalogued under headings such as Machine Tools Catalogs or directly under the company name.

Publications from consumer groups

Choice: journal of the Australian Consumers' Association reviews products available in Australia and compares prices. 

Reserve Bank of Australia inflation calculator

Inflation calculator (Reserve Bank of Australia) 

"This tool calculates the change in cost of purchasing a representative ‘basket of goods and services’ over a period of time. For example, it may show that items costing $10 in 1970 cost $26.93 in 1980 and $58.71 in 1990."