What early retirement was like in 1957 (according to Life magazine)

Sometimes I hit the jackpot in my quest to find old material about retirement and early retirement. Last week, for instance, I was reading Early Retirement Dude's history of the financial independence movement when he mentioned a Life magazine photo essay about early retirement from February 1957. Say what?

Within minutes, I was reading the article via Google Books. Within an hour, I had ordered not just that issue of Life but three others with retirement articles. Within days, the magazines were on my doorstep. I'm telling you: We live in the future!

Life magazine article on early retirement

I had intended to scan the entire ten-page photo essay for you, but that proved impossible. My scanner only handles 8-1/2 x 11 paper. (What about legal size?) I took the magazines down to the nearest copy shop, but their scanner can't handle Life magazines either. (They're roughly 11 x 14!) So, I've opted to transcribe the bulk of the text for you, and I've included a few photos from the Google archive of this article.

Note: I hate Life‘s copy editing. I've taken the liberty of formatting things to match my personal sensibility. Long live the Oxford comma! And paragraph breaks. Also, you should be able to click on any of these images to view a larger version.

To many young men, retirement is a goal they cannot hope to reach until they are too used up to enjoy it. To many aging work horses, it is a prospect of boredom bred of too much spare time. Between the two extremes, a few men in their 40s and 50s are pushing into a new frontier of retirement — retreat from punishing jobs to a life where they still work but no longer under high pressure.

Joel Brecheen, now 45, was a building-products salesman making $10,000 a year [equivalent to $91,000 in 2018] but finding himself always out of pocket for time. In 1952, with $13,000 in savings [$119,000 today], he quit, got married, and bought an orange grove near Phoenix.

He remodeled a house, built five rentable apartments, tennis courts, and a swimming pool and settled into the family life he wanted to lead, teaching youngsters how to swim and play tennis and improving his property. He had special qualifications that pulled him past the critical point where many who try retirement give up and return to the beaten track. He was an expert do-it-yourselfer and a qualified athletic instructor.

Still, he found decompression from high-pressure life hard to take. “I'd be plastering one of the apartments,” he says, “and I'd suddenly think that I ought to be on my way somewhere.”

From his property and teaching, Brecheen today nets $8000 per year [$73,000 today].

Life magazine article on early retirement

Holy cats! This dude retired with barely more than a year's salary saved. That's ballsy.

As you read these anecdotes, keep in mind they're from February 1957. A young adult reading this might have been born in 1930 or 1935. They would have reached traditional retirement age in 1995 or 2000, and they'd likely be nearing ninety now (if they're fortunate enough to still be alive).

To put it another way: Warren Buffett was born in 1930. He would have been 26 years old when this issue was published. Odds are good that he read it. Odds are also good that he thought, “Man, I'd like to retire early!”

A romantic retreat to part-time jobs
Arthur and Kathryn Lynch had romantic ideas about retirement: They wanted to get away from it all. They also had advantages — $30,000 [$274,000 today], no children, and technical knowledge picked up on jobs as research chemists.

Four years ago when Arthur Lynch, at 45, was making more money — $15,000 a year [$137,000 today] — than ever before, they left Pittsburgh to settle on St. John in the Virgin Islands. There, $12,000 went into a house [$110,000 today], and Mr. Lynch put his training to use on the island's power equipment.

Both Lynches like manual labor and hire themselves out as handymen. Working part time in a place they love, they net a livable $4000 a year [$36,500 today].

Life magazine article on early retirement

This guy is a little more prepared than the first fellow. He at least has two times his annual salary saved — even if he put a big chunk of that into a house. And what about his wife? If she's a research chemist too, how much does she make? If this article were written today, we'd get stats on both partners in this marriage.

Aside from the subtle sexism, I feel like these stories could have been written today. When I think about the folks I know who are pursuing early retirement, their lives and thoughts and passions look very similar to those profiled in this piece.

I know people who want to retire early so that they can move to some remote country for a “romantic retreat”. I know folks who want to escape high-pressure jobs in order to pursue something more prosaic. Like the Wertzes (in the excerpt below), Bob Clyatt retired early to focus on art.

People want to retire early for a variety of reasons. But our reasons today look an awful lot like the reasons people had in 1957.

Getting free to lead a very busy life
In 1948, Joseph B. Wertz, a 45-year-old Washington designer under contract with the government to lay out airbase plans, had reached a high-pressure level of success where he had no time for hobbies and too little time for his newly-married wife, Jeanne.

So, he gave up his busy life for a life of retirement which has turned out to be every bit as busy. Today, in a made-over stable in New Mexico, he makes pottery and furniture, paints, sculpts, photographs, and does silversmithing.

After deciding to retire, the Wertzes scouted the western U.S. in a trailer, looking for the ideal spot for settling down. Facing the river in Santa Fe, they bought a stable and rebuilt it into a rambling adobe house. They live there comfortably on the $4200 annual income from investments [$38,000 today].

Some of the pottery Mr. Wertz makes is so good museums are interested in showing it. Meanwhile, he has a new interest — glass blowing.

Life magazine article on early retirement

Having discovered this article — and the three other Life magazines with retirement topics — I'm now forced to wonder: How many other old articles are out there about early retirement?

In college, I loved working on research papers. I loved going to the library, digging out the catalogs of various magazines and journals (some of which were on microfilm), then tracking down the back issues. This project feels like it calls for similar legwork. As awesome as the internet is, it's woefully lacking when it comes to pre-1990 material. Like the U.S. as a whole, the web has a strong recency bias.

Do universities still keep huge volumes that index back issues of journals and magazines? I don't know. But I think it would be fun to take a day to go visit a college library to try to do some research on this subject.

Finding time to be a father
Allen Cook was an airline pilot whose overseas flights kept him too long from his family. He muffed two tries at retirement. Once, he moved to Florida but got cold feet when the monthly pay check was cut off abruptly. Another time, he tried dairy farming in California and wearied of the long milking chores.

Such troubles are common to people who try to retire. But Cook kept trying.

In 1954, he sold his farm and livestock and bought a motel in Sarasota, Fla. for use as a business and as a residence. Soon, he was able to sell the motel at a profit, buy a house, and devote himself to a business he liked — a camera shop in which he had invested.

Now 39, he works at the shop full-time during the tourist season but, with a manager to spell him, only half-time the rest of the year. He takes $100 a week [$913 today] out of the till for the family's living expenses and can afford to do what he prizes most: be a full-time father.

Life magazine article on early retirement

I love that the folks at Life had no qualms talking about these men being retired even though they still worked. Nowadays, there's a lot of push-back when somebody says she's retired yet continues to earn money from her labor.

We bloggers jokingly talk about the Internet Retirement Police who roam the web calling out folks who don't meet their definition of retirement. I wonder if there were Magazine Retirement Police in 1957, folks who complained that the subjects of this article weren't actually retired.

I suspect not. From my reading, this is a new complaint in the past twenty years. Previous generations had no qualm with folks claiming to be both retired and working.

Business tied to pleasure, plus the risks
For those who retire young, it is often hard to know which part is vocation and which avocation.

Warren Rice, 51, Old Lyme, Conn. engineer, and Bruff Olin, 42, a Worcester, Mass. radio-station owner, both left high-pressure lives at different times to settle in Sarasota, Fla., later joined in a sign-making business.

“With two of us,” says Olin, “neither knocks his brains out. And we can do business on a beach as well as an office.”

Edward Dobson, 52, quit a lucrative 15-hour-a-day law and real estate business in Washingtonville, N.Y. and moved to Sarasota. He now dabbles in real estate and two palm tree nurseries and lives on $6000 a year [$55,000 today].

The scarcity of people who achieve this state of relaxed living indicates the hazards. Capital is needed to start and a period of hard labor and discouragement must be faced. Favored regions are flooded with others trying to retire. While one member of the family may adjust to the new life, others may not. Many people are stimulated by their work, feel dismally let down when they give it up. And some, in trading money for time, simply change pressures.

But if it works, early retirement can produce the blissful by-product show [in these pages].

As a word of warning, look for more of these “history of retirement” pieces in the future. I've ordered six or seven old books on the subject, and am now keeping my eye out for more magazine articles about the topic too.

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Early Retirement Dude
Early Retirement Dude
1 year ago

Thanks again for the shout-out.

Man…that Warren Buffet observation is spot on. You’re right; good odds that he would’ve read it. And I like to think his reaction would’ve been, “Fools. There’s so much opportunity in this world…how can you ignore it?” But that’s why he’s Warren Buffet and I’m not. 🙂

Edwin
Edwin
1 year ago

I don’t get the Warren Buffett reference. Today at age 87 Warren Buffett has an extraordinarily busy professional life as CEO, philanthropist, and non-stop engagements in all sorts of things. Maybe he read the article 60 years ago but so what? What does Warren Buffett have to do with early retirement? He hasn’t retired (early or normal, … or late); he may will retire.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

Fix the page jumping up and down on mobile browsers!!! Can’t read it

Tony
Tony
1 year ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Yes, I see it also in Safari on iOS 11. I think it is an issue with the first embedded flickr photo.

Monica
Monica
1 year ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I generally read on my macbook air – where things are fine, however I just checked on my iPhone I get the very annoying jumping around Ben describes when I go directly to your webpage, but reading on Bloglovin on the iPhone – no issues!

Tony
Tony
1 year ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I can confirm that it is no longer jumping around on my iOS device now.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony

Better now, thanks!
Also, the sexism in the articles wasn’t that subtle, lol.

FiddleFaddle
FiddleFaddle
1 year ago

Love today’s vintage article and the reviews you’ve been doing of older books. Keep them coming!

A lot of the material reminds me of my Depression-era grandparents, who started with nothing and ended up quite well off.

Freedom 40 Plan
Freedom 40 Plan
1 year ago

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen all week. Thanks so much for sharing! I love how almost everyone here “retired” but then went on to do other things that were of interest to them, but on their own terms. The idea that retirement has to mean sitting on the beach all day is so insane. I mean, who could actually do that for more than a week without going nuts?

Susan
Susan
1 year ago

I work for a library resource company and we sell the use of digital magazine archives back to when they started (Life, the Atlantic, and others) to both universities and public libraries. You might be able to search magazine archives at your public library and print copies there. Although I can see the fun in buying back issues.

Mr RIP
Mr RIP
1 year ago

This post is GOLD. Thanks for sharing it JD!
I especially loved the “baristaFI” guy who took 100$ a week for infinite mini sabbaticals 😀

Tom
Tom
1 year ago

JD,
You can find essentially anything ever published on the internet now, although often there is a paywall and you need to go through a library. Archive.org, HathiTrust, newspapers.com, the Library of Congress, and ProQuest are some good sources. I do research in nineteenth-century periodicals all the time; the entire century more or less has been digitized except for manuscript materials. I’d find the Life magazine for you but I’m at work.
I’d like to read about what you turn up if you do some more looking in older sources.
Tom

Lisa
Lisa
1 year ago

https://books.google.com/books?id=DFQEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA49&dq=%22joseph+b.+wertz%22+retired&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjIpsXIxpLdAhWM2YMKHS3CCdUQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=%22joseph%20b.%20wertz%22%20retired&f=false

Google Books has scanned Life Magazine – I don’t know how much, but the retirement article is there. There are tons of 19th and 20th c. periodicals out there.

Here’s a bit from Kiplinger’s on early retirement – the rest of the issue is entertaining, too, 45 years later.

https://books.google.com/books?id=EwUEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA4&dq=%22retire+early%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjp_O6XyZLdAhXJ6oMKHbWXA_kQ6AEINjAD#v=onepage&q=%22retire%20early%22&f=false

The 76K Project
The 76K Project
1 year ago

This was such a fun read – something new and novel in the FIRE/PF blogosphere. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these posts!

Luke
Luke
1 year ago

This is very cool – it’s interesting to see what has and has not changed over the years (i.e. why people retire early, opportunities, how people do it). I find myself incredibly jealous of the real estate opportunities available to my parents/grandparents that are probably not available to current-day, non-property owners. Try buying a move-in ready property in St. John for $100k today, or buying an orange grove near Phoenix, building rental properties and living on no immediate income, all on $120k total!! You have to go pretty far off the grid, or having the time/skills to update a fixer-upper… Read more »

mom2twins
mom2twins
1 year ago
Reply to  Luke

I have worked remotely from home for the past 10 years…. all corporate and federal contracting jobs. Right now I do technical writing for the VA. I love it! Plus I live in the middle of Kansas with low cost of living.

Cindi
Cindi
1 year ago

To those who bought properties in Sarasota FL, if they are still alive and if they held onto those real estate listings, they’d be multi-millionaires today! Wow!
I think back then, the life expectancy was probably 65 or 70. To retire in their 40’s made sense.
Very interesting read.
I enjoyed it. Thanks for posting.

Woodstock
Woodstock
1 year ago

Hey J.D., this is exactly the sort of project that librarians love, and are trained, to do. I highly recommend you mosey down to your local public library and chat with your friendly, neighborhood librarian. They will steer you right.

Adam
Adam
1 year ago

Wonderful read and links. Thanks for the history dive, really enjoyed it. More?? 😀

Re: scanning, Lisa pointed out that Google has the copies, but have you tried an app like Scanbot? Could handle the size you’re working with.

Accidental FIRE
Accidental FIRE
1 year ago

Really cool man and thanks for transcribing this and getting it out there! The parallels to what many of us are trying to do today are amazing!

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

I love it. This is an awesome find. I also think it’s great that they use “retire” just like I do. It just means retiring from a career. It’s awesome that these folks retired to a business or self employment. That’s the perfect way to do it. Retiring to a life of leisure just doesn’t work when you’re young.

veronica
veronica
1 year ago

I love how they call people who retire in their 50’s early retireree’s! Seems today you only qualify for that label if you retire in your 30’s

Marty
Marty
1 year ago

I loved reading the past articles. I immediately found myself wondering how things turned out for them later on, or the history and legacy they created. That would require a lot of research, but fascinating, non the less.

Steve
Steve
1 year ago

Whatever happened to the term “semi-retired”. A lot of people would not agree that a business owner or someone self-employed is retired, but I think most would say semi-retired sounds great!!

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

Google created a great app for scanning documents using your phone. It takes several pictures to create one nice looking final file.

It’s called PhotoScan by Google Photos

Karen C.
Karen C.
1 year ago

It would be so neat to get in touch with the relatives of these people to see where their lives went after the publication.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago

This is a great find! We often like to think that something new has been invented or “hacked” recently, but it’s usually not new, but rather just became fashionable or popular recently.

Sarah
Sarah
1 year ago

I love old books and articles on early retirement as well! In fact, I once found an old book called Get Rich Slowly at a garage sale. It was pretty good! Sadly, I don’t remember the author, and it’s probably already long out of print.

Jen
Jen
1 year ago

Good article! I couldn’t help
But do some research. I hope these 2 links work . http://time.com/4724817/early-retirement-photos/

Allan Smith
Allan Smith
1 year ago

This is a good read indeed. I would love to do some research as well. Early retirement is a dream of many aspiring youngsters. It is great to know about early retirement life in long back history. You have done a great job. Thanks for sharing.

CanTex
CanTex
1 year ago

I was working for the grandson of the founder of a megacorp, who actually thought he could run a company. Other ex-employees have noted the similarities to D. Trump. I “retired” at 50, started my own software consulting company, worked my @$$ off but for me that wasn’t work. My wife limited me to 45 hours a week but I could have happily done many more. In my mind I was retired and that’s all that mattered. (Oh and the money I was able to earn and squirrel away for wind-down time years later! Hee hee.) Let the retirement trolls… Read more »

Wealthy Doc
Wealthy Doc
1 year ago

I love backward looks in time of example of modern “new” ideas.
Thanks for digging this up and for sharing.

Roman
Roman
1 year ago

Fascinating find, JD. It is humbling to note that the issues we discuss about in FIRE community today aren’t all that new, more organized perhaps, but not new. Great gem you have unearthed from 1950s. That’s actually the period the economy and stock market was on a tear, so perhaps many felt confident to pull the plug from a formal career by that decade’s end, much like many did in late 90’s. Neither cohort knew the following decade (1960’s/70’s and 2000’s) would be challenging, so if Life Magazine did a sequel revisiting these folks in say, 1967-69 period or early… Read more »

Rena
Rena
1 year ago

Did you try to find out if they are still around or how it worked out for them? Afterall, my mother at 93 was born before them, uses her computer and is on internet, and is financially savy. I would love to know the answers…maybe someone from one of their families might pick up on this.

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