Index that maps social history

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The Independent Online
THE AFFLUENT society probably began in 1956 - the year that Britain invaded Suez and plastic washing-up bowls replaced enamel ones in the retail price index.

Official price-watching in Britain over the last 80 years provides a brief but vivid record of social history. The cost-of-living index launched in 1914 measured the price of back-lacing corsets, banister brushes, washing soda, candles, third-class rail fares and shirts with separate collars.

By 1956 - two years before publication of J K Galbraith's The Affluent Society - most of these items had been replaced in the index by products associated with the age of consumption.

Televisions, washing machines, photographic film, cars and coffee were included for the first time. Paint replaced distemper and candles were finally banished.

The retail price index measures about 600 indicators, updated yearly in the light of spending patterns charted by the family expenditure survey. From 1914 to 1947 it remained unaltered: since then it has worked increasingly hard to keep up with changing tastes and technology. In 1947, for example, fresh fruit and vegetables were included for the first time, while 1952 saw the arrival of iron bedsteads and insurance for motorcycles - one of the main forms of private transport.

Arrivals since then have included sherry, electric cookers and fridges (1962), wine and yoghurt (1970s), continental quilts (1979), CD players (1987), condoms (1989), tumble driers (1990) and computer games (1993).

Recent departures include jam doughnuts, LP records and monochrome televisions.