A friend sent me one of those emails that are constantly making the rounds filled with old quotations complaining about ridiculously high prices that now seem ridiculously cheap. An example from 1955: “Did you hear the post office is thinking about charging 7 cents just to mail a letter?”
As it turns out, the 1955 postage rate was only 3 cents per ounce, and I can remember from my childhood in the sixties mailing letters for a nickel. These ruminations led to other memories of the days when pocket change counted for more than tiddlywinks.
Some Coca-Cola drink machines charged 10 cents for a large (12 ounce) bottle, or 6 cents for a small (6.5 ounce) bottle. I recall when most of them jumped to 15 cents for the large bottle, and I remember being shocked and appalled at having to pay 25 cents for a Coke at a summer camp I attended. It was a hot day — my thirst overcame my financial prudence and I ponied up a whole quarter, feeling completely ripped off and wondering what my mother would think of my profligacy.
In my first grade class, we were given the opportunity to buy ice cream at a specific period of each day: popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, Brown Mules, or (my favorite) Nutty Buddies for five cents each. I begged my parents to give me a nickel a day out of their budget for this frivolous expense. It was more about status and belonging than it was about sugar or calories, because during that period which was set aside for the consumption of dairy treats, those who partook not had nothing more to do than enviously observe those who did. My parents reluctantly agreed, and placed a nickel in my wallet each night for that purpose.
One day, for some reason I can no longer recall, I didn’t buy any ice cream. When my father discovered the nickel still in my wallet from the previous night, he added another nickel. The next morning he congratulated me on my self-discipline and frugality, which I accepted without revealing that fiscal virtue had played no part in my abstinence.
“Whenever I find the money still in your wallet,” Dad said, “I’ll reward you by adding the same amount to what’s there.”
Even at that tender age, my math skills were sharp enough to realize that I had struck a gold mine. Some of the other kids at school always seemed to have money, and now I would become one of those kids. I quit eating ice cream altogether.
At an interest rate of 100% per day, compounded daily, within a week my father (who only made $64 a week at that time) could no longer afford to keep his promise. I had to settle for a five dollar bill when I should have had $6.40. I kept that portrait of Mr. Lincoln in my wallet for weeks, and I walked the halls of the school feeling as if I owned the place.
I think my mother eventually convinced me to commit that five dollars to my savings account at the local bank, increasing my balance from $25 to $30. Several years later that balance had grown to around $125 through deposits of birthday gifts and compounded interest at 4.5%. I withdrew the original $25 with which my mother had opened the account, took it to the local jewelry store, and bought her a silver pitcher for Mother’s Day. She still has that pitcher.