A Dime Used To Have Buying Power

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A few weeks ago, I talked about the value of a dime when I was a young boy in New York City back in the 1930s.

Taken out of context as they were, some of the things I mentioned may not have meant as much to you they might have.

Perhaps I can correct that by filling in some of the blanks.

There are some things that seem to increase in price, at the same rate over the years.

Milk and bread have done that. For many years the price of a loaf of plain white bread and a quart of whole milk have risen together, staying quite close to each other.

To give you an idea of the value of a dime back in the 1930s, I only need to tell you that they each cost eleven cents, just one penny more than a dime.

That should give you a fairly-good handle on the value of a dime back then; it would buy a loaf of bread or a quart of milk.

A pack of cigarettes cost eleven cents back then, too, and for many years afterward bread, milk, and cigarettes stayed within a penny or two of each other, but then the legislatures discovered that they could get away with turning tobacco products into cash cows, and you know what happened after that.

A dime, I think, is an interesting coin.

Though the smallest of our coins, it's by no means the least valuable of them. Back when it was a genuine silver coin with the image of Lady Liberty on one side, it was a pretty coin, too, something to be admired.

I don't much care for the three layered copper-and-nickel thing we have today; it looks like a breath mint for a robot.

But, back to the value of money in the 1930s.

Here's another benchmark for you: Two cents would get a kid a daytime seat in a movie theater any day of the week, even on Saturday. It cost seven cents for the same seat on Sunday, but then you got a dinner plate or some other nice giveaway with it.

The "ten cents worth of store cheese" I mentioned in that earlier article was a slab of American cheese about the size and thickness of your hand, more than enough to cook up a rich macaroni-and-cheese dinner--if you had the macaroni, and a pot, and someplace to cook in.

A lot of people didn't.

Lots of things were a penny in those days.

Obviously, most of the machines at a penny arcade cost a penny. A ride on a merry-go-round did, too. So did a five-pack roll of caps for your cap gun, as well as a postcard or a pencil.

If you were crazy enough to waste real money on something frivolous, you could pay a penny for your weight and fortune on a weight machine; I never did that because I suspected the fortune card would tell me I was going to die hungry and penniless for wasting money like that.

A penny's worth of loose candy -- licorice buttons, candy corn, spice drops, and the like--was measured out in a wooden barrel a little smaller than a shot glass. The measure was always heaping or the kids took their business elsewhere.

These days a penny is so worthless, almost no one bends over to pick one up. I don't know why they bother to make them anymore.

Back then a bus or subway ride cost a nickel, with as many free transfers as necessary to get you wherever you were going.

In cold or rainy weather, people who were flat busted used to ride the subway over in Manhattan all day, changing trains endlessly and staying warm and dry unless they fell asleep and ended up at one end of a subway line, such as at South ferry or Bronx Zoo, where you couldn't get a transfer to another train.

The seven-mile, forty-minute ferry ride across New York City harbor from Staten Island to Manhattan only cost a nickel too.

A Hershey bar that would make today's thin little thing look like a sick underweight relative was just five cents.

The daily paper was two cents, but the Sunday paper, with its fat cartoon section -- what we really bought the paper for -- was a nickel.

A phone call? Maybe you've heard the expression: "Go ahead, buddy, start talking; it's your nickel."

More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that a large cup of coffee was a nickel and so was a hamburger or hot dog, although back in those days they didn't let you pile on the onions, or sauerkraut, or relish yourself like they do today.

It wouldn't have been a wise move; not with the number of people who were out of work and hungry, and who would have made a meal out of the sauerkraut or chopped onions, and been glad to get it.

Money was then, as it is now, something that can be traded for food, or clothing, or a warm place to sleep, or a lot of other good things.

Back then it was not easy to come by a few bucks, but even in the face of the worst Depression this nation has ever known, the jails and prisons were not as overcrowded as they are today, a fact you can verify for yourself if you like.

Back then, you see, money, though hard to come by, was not something that most people were willing to sell their souls.

Today, on the other hand ...

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