Yes, money talks, but pennies and nickels do not speak as loudly as they once did. Come with me as we look at what I like to call “The Three Ages of Money,” covering the period of the last 100 years. The “three ages” include “The Coin Age’’ (1920 to 1929), “The Great Depression’’ (1929 to 1940) and “A Time of Plenty” (1940 to the present).
The Coin Age
In the 1920s, you could buy lots of things with small coins. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters were once important money! For example, we kids looked forward to buying penny candy at the grocery store. For a nickel, we could get either a Coca-Cola®, a hamburger or a double-dip ice cream cone, and, for a dime, we could see a movie at Frisco’s “picture show.”
Let’s take a couple of everyday items and compare today’s price to the price of the same item in the year 1928. That year, a loaf of bread cost 9 cents. I recently paid almost 30 times that much ($2.68) for a loaf. In 1928, gasoline in Frisco was 10 cents per gallon, and, last week, I paid 23 times as much ($2.30 per gallon). Put another way, what I paid recently would have bought 26 loaves of bread and 23 gallons of gas in 1928. And we could find similar examples in the prices of most other items.
Small coins were once a frequent part of our conversation, but we seldom hear them mentioned anymore. How long has it been since you heard expressions like “a penny for your thoughts?” Or, what about Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “A penny saved is a penny earned?” Someone even wrote a song called “Pennies from Heaven.” Yes, pennies were, in those days, really worth something.
Even the Bible speaks about the value of small copper coins. They were called “mites,” the smallest currency available at the time, probably similar in value to our penny. The twenty-first chapter of Luke, verses two through four, tell of Jesus seeing the rich put their gifts into the treasury. Then, He also saw a poor widow putting in two mites and said, “Truly, I say that this poor widow has put in more than all. The rich put in out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she had.”
But, today, our poor little penny is in peril. Recent news says the government may soon stop making them. It seems minting now costs more than they are worth. Worthless or not, I still plan to pick them up as long as I can stoop over.
Nickels, too, had their day. People cautioned each other saying, “Do not take any wooden nickels,” while others spoke of a “lead nickel,” meaning something worthless. Then, for the dime, there was the expression: “Give me a Yankee dime,” which, according to the Internet, was a Southern expression meaning a quick, innocent kiss.
Do you remember when a quarter was sometimes called “two bits?” In the early days, Frisco High School’s pep squad had a yell that said, “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar! All for Frisco stand up and holler!” And we did … with gusto.
You youngsters may not remember that our economy went through some extremely rough times in the 1930s, so let me explain. The problem was caused by something called the “Great Depression,” which has been called the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. It began with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, a day called “Black Tuesday.” By 1933, at the Depression’s lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed, and nearly half the country’s banks had failed.
Those of us who lived through the Depression can, and often do, tell horror stories about those times. As for me, my story goes like this: I was 8 years old in 1929 and had saved $20 toward the price of a new bicycle when the bank failed and got “my life’s savings.” I had to start over and finally picked enough cotton to buy a used bike for $9. You might wonder why Santa Claus or my parents did not just give me a bike. Well, the bank got my parents’ savings too, and I guess even Santa was broke.
In parts of the country, especially the industrial area, the Depression brought bread lines and soup kitchens to help feed the unemployed. Some farmers could not borrow money to harvest their crops, and crops were left to rot in the fields. Many farmers eventually lost their farms, and the economy, which depended on the farming industry, suffered hit after hit.
Overall, the Depression was a bad time, but it taught us this everlasting lesson: waste not and want not!
President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 and immediately instituted his “New Deal” programs. There was the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration. That one helped pay my way through college, paying me 50 cents per hour. Those and other government programs certainly helped. However, many feel that our entrance into World War II in 1941 was the primary thing that brought us out of the Depression. It re-opened factories and put people to work everywhere producing goods for the war effort.
A Time of Plenty
That brings us to today’s era, “A Time of Plenty,” from 1940 to the present. It certainly is a time of plenty compared to those we just studied. The unemployment rate is down, the stock market is up and wages are too. A federal minimum wage was adopted in 1938 with an initial rate of only 25 cents per hour. Since that time, it has increased every 10 years, and is now $7.50 per hour, a whopping 29 times the 1938 rate! At that pace, what can we expect in years to come?
Today, times are good. I certainly hope they stay that way, but remember this: history shows that the economy has a way of making some painful dips from time to time. So, my advice, for what it is worth, is to start a good savings plan and stay with it. Then, teach your children to do the same. Do I hear an amen?
In conclusion, I have a “money” story for you — just a snippet from one I wrote for this magazine in 2005. It was entitled “Picking Up Pennies,” telling of a time, some 40 years ago, when our 6-year-old grandson, Philip, was visiting us. My wife, Ann, asked Philip if he would run across the vacant lot to Moseley’s Grocery Store and get a loaf of bread. His reward was to get candy. He gladly agreed, took $2 and was on his way. He was back in a jiffy, handed Ann the bread and the receipt and started to unwrap his candy bar. Ann looked at the receipt and asked, “Where is the change?” Philip replied, “Oh, it was not anything but nickels, dimes and pennies, so I threw them away. They would not buy anything anyway.” Ann looked at me and said, “You handle this.” So, I took Philip aside and taught him the facts of life — regarding economics. I told him about having to work in the fields for a dollar a day when I was just a child, how much a dime would buy in the old days and all kinds of “poor day” tales. He listened politely, and finally said, “Grandad, would you help me find the money I threw away?”
Yes, money still talks, and I believe Philip heard it loud and clear that day. I want to think it told him that even pennies do count, because, today Philip is a very responsible, well-educated and successful young man.