April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Set any group of adults talking about the good old days and it will not be long before someone brings up the subject of inflation. The good old days, apparently, were the days when a dollar was worth a dollar, and the general decline in everything from moral standards to sartorial respectability can be measured by the decline in the dollar’s power to purchase. If the adults engaged in the discussion date back any distance at all, each one will have his own little story to show inflation’s tragic ravages.
As a matter of fact, I have my own inflation story, and propose to tell it now.
Away back in the early years of the present century, when I was a good five years old, my older brother and I were walking down the village street one summer afternoon when we found a nice, shiny twenty-five-cent piece lying on the sidewalk.
This represented unimaginable wealth. Pocket money we never had. We legged it down the road to the resort town of Beulah, three quarters of a mile away, where moneyed gentlemen like ourselves could find things worth buying.
Our first port of call, of course, was the soda fountain, where each one of us had a tall, chocolate ice-cream soda. This was a once-a-year delicacy, at best, always enjoyed through the bounty of some grownup; here we were, on our own, spending five cents apiece with all the abandon of Coal Oil Johnny himself. When the last drops went noisily up the straws and down our throats, we still had fifteen cents.
We strolled about, enjoying the sensation of being wholly solvent. To help ourselves enjoy it, we bought a five-cent box of Cracker Jack, which I recall as a sort of popcorn-and-molasses confection, and ate it to the final fragment as we walked. Then it occurred to us to go to the candy store, where after long discussion we invested five cents in chocolate drops. (I suppose that is what they were called; or maybe, by stretching the words’ meaning a bit, they were called chocolate creams; they were big, with firm white centers and a slick chocolate coating, and they came three for a penny.) For a nickel one got quite a sackful, and we took ours and went and sat on a dock and ate them all.
Down to the last nickel, now. By unani mous consent we bought a package of chewing gum. This meant that we were stocked up for a long time to come. You never threw away a used stick of chewing gum in those days; you fastened it in some safe place—the underside of a chair or table was best—and next day you brought it out and started all over again. That final nickel was wisely spent.
If I were inventing this, I would make a moral tale of it by reciting that we both got stomach-aches and could not eat any supper, but it did not happen that way. We had no pains and our appetites were at the normal level when evening came. The day had simply been a gift from the gods, and there was no price to pay.
So that is my little story about inflation, and I probably ought to go on and point out how much farther a twenty-five-cent piece went in those days than it could possibly go today. But somehow I can’t. For the simple fact is that if it went farther in those days, it had a great deal farther to go and a lot more to carry. It was harder to get; and the inescapable fact is that in the brave preinfiation era there was a great deal of plain, unadulterated poverty. Genteel enough, mostly, but still poverty.
In that era of five-cent ice-cream sodas, the going wage for a grown man (aside from the highly skilled trades) was fifteen cents an hour. Working a ten-hour day and a six-day week, which was about standard, a man could take home nine dollars on Saturday evening. With that he had to support a family. Prices were low, to be sure—they had to be low—but hardly anybody had anything to spare. The average boy never finished high school, because he had to go to work.
I know, horrible tales can be told about the bad effects of inflation; it can destroy the reliability of fixed assets, give pampered youth a false set of values, undermine pension and retirement plans, and raise a great number of very dire problems. But I don’t want to hear any more about those things. I had a good long look at the other side of the coin, and it destroyed more than it conserved. There was something radically wrong about a system under which the discovery of one twenty-five-cent piece would shed a radiance that is still bright sixty-odd years later.