A penny once meant something


Until recently, I often stopped by the corner convenience store after work to treat my sweet tooth. From the time I was 4 years old and walked barefoot down to Vern Wagner’s little general store, I’ve always enjoyed the wonderful taste of chocolate.

Today, I wind up plunking down nearly a buck and a half ($1.50) for my favorite candy—either Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or the mouth-watering chocolate sticks. While this chocolate treat is every bit as good as any “Denver Sandwich” or “Cherry Mash” I ate as a boy, today’s bar appears to be about half the size I paid one nickel for 50 years ago.

Now that I think about it, $1.50 is much easier to come by today than a nickel was when I was a youngster growing up in the northwestern Kansas farm community of Seguin.

Back then, men worked 12 and 14-hour days on the farm for as little as $1 an hour. Dad talked about men working for 50 cents a day during the Great Depression, when you could buy an acre of ground for about the same price you would pay for a five-stick pack of Juicy Fruit gum today.

For most people in this part of the country, times were rough in those days, and they were ready and willing to work for darn near any price, just to keep bread on the family table.

Fifty cents for a day’s wages went a long way toward buying food before World War II, my dad once told me. Recalling those days some 70 years ago, Dad talked about bacon selling for 15 cents a pound, eggs were a dime a dozen, Ivory soap sold at five bars for less than a quarter, butter cost 20 cents a pound and a large loaf of bread was two pennies.

Remember pennies?

They’re something some people toss away today because they won’t buy anything. Some people still pick up these discarded relics, adhering to the adage, “A penny saved, a penny earned.”

Whether we want to admit it, or even realize it, food still remains a good buy. Today, the average wage earner spends a much smaller percentage of his/her paycheck (about 10 percent) to buy food for the family. As a comparison, in 1933, this figure was more than 25 percent. Today the average family in the United States probably eats better than any time in this country’s history.

Like food, clothing also cost little by today’s standards. Seventy years ago, shoes sold for two bucks a pair, and you could buy a pretty nifty “goin’-to-church-suit” for less than $5.

Dad had a brother and brother-in-law who owned a car dealership back in those days. I can remember them talking about a Model T with a sticker price of $300 about the time their parents ushered in the Roaring ’20s. A full tank of gas (10 gallons) sold for less than two dollars, a quart of oil cost three bits and air for the tires was free.

What I wouldn’t give to fill up my vehicle for even $25 a tank today.

It’s fun remembering days of yesteryear and comparing them to today. While a lot has changed, my sweet tooth hasn’t.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.


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