Chester Martin Remembers The Value Of A Penny

Sunday, March 6, 2016
Sunnyside Elementary lunch ticket
Sunnyside Elementary lunch ticket

THERE you see a photo of a lunch ticket from Sunnyside Elementary School on North Germantown Road - from the year 1946. I know that year is not relevant to many of you reading this article, but it actually IS! Just look at that row of holes where the 1 cent amount is punched out, disregarding the hanging shads! It simply shows you graphically how much the power of our good ol' American dollar has declined in one long lifetime. In 1946, the old Ben Franklin slogan, "A penny saved is a penny earned", still had some real meaning.

It would not buy very much by itself, but a great many things did sell for one cent. Penny postcards would be one example, where one cent would buy you the blank postcard, and pay for its transportation to anywhere in the U.S. One cent would also buy a simple Christmas ornament or a small pencil sharpener for your desk at school. Bubble gum, when first invented, sold for one cent! Krystal hamburgers started out at 5 cents.

"Carfare" in Chattanooga had been 5 cents in my mother's day - and continued being so on streetcar lines into the 1940's - including a transfer, should you need one. The newer city buses were harder to maintain and required a whopping seven cents to keep them operating, although school tokens sold for only 3 cents apiece in rolls of 50 or 100.

Five pennies would buy you a "big little book" at the "5 and 10 cent" stores - back in the day when "5 and 10 cents" had some real meaning. Most comic books were 5 cents, but jumped to a dime as their popularity increased. It was rare, though, for such a price to double overnight. First-run movie theaters like the Tivoli could get 35 cents, plus one cent tax, per adult customer in the daytime hours, but the price rose for the evening shows. Normal admission for kids at all movie theaters was 9 cents, for if the price had been a full 10 cents, an extra 1 cent tax would have increased the admission to an outrageous 11 cents! The movie houses therefore kept it cool by holding the 9 cent price. 35 cents would buy you a "special plate" at the highly popular S&W Cafeteria on Market Street (through to Broad), meaning that for under $1.00 an adult could go by bus to town, have a good lunch and enjoy a first-run movie - with popcorn thrown in!

Yes, it is true that salaries of the 1940's and 1950's were much lower than today's. My high school friends and I used to discuss salaries of what working-people made. We understood that many a grown man only earned around $25.00 a week, and that $35.00 was considered "good". It was extremely rare to hear of anyone making a full $100.00 per week in those days. Union workers had their own scales of pay, which might include a few Journeymen who made a $100/week, but the majority of their workers were still apprentices who worked at various lower pay levels.

But back to that copper penny. Add some nickels, dimes, quarters, and halves. (yes, folks there used to be half-dollars; they are still around, but are virtually useless as they do not fit into any known parking meter or slot machine). Put all those coins in your pocket - the ones you have carefully saved from your paper-route money - and imagine that you are 12 years old. You have gone downtown to do some Christmas shopping, and you are happy at that prospect. You run across the street while attempting to fish a quarter out of your pocket, and in your excitement, when you pull your hand out, you accidentally empty your entire pocket full of change onto the street! Coins go rolling in all directions and crowds of people go diving for them, and you know they are gone forever! THAT is not a happy feeling, I assure you, and as the coins all evaporate into the greedy crowd, all you remember is the JINGLE! The jingle of REAL SILVER hitting the pavement.

Many years later I visited Austria while its economy was still down after WW2. At that time you got about 40 Austrian Schillings for one American dollar, yet they still divided it into 100 pennies, like our dollar. While walking along their streets I began to notice many tiny aluminum pennies literally thrown out on the ground and trampled over because they were of no value. It was at first incomprehensible to me that anybody could literally discard real money - but now I can see the reason and understand why. Skipping ahead about 30 years to 1990, I ran a little test: I was living in Philadelphia in an area where people of many classes daily congregated. These included tourists, well-off "yuppies" (I was an "Opie" in a Yuppy neighborhood!), and large numbers of street people. My test was this: I put out a dozen or more U.S. pennies on the edge of a planter in plain view of sidewalk traffic. I passed that site four times daily and it was easy to keep an eye on what went down. Nothing! It took many days for even one of those pennies to disappear; not even the homeless people wanted them...

I think you get my Economic message. I have never understood why President Richard M. Nixon took our good, hard, American currency off the Silver Standard! I can understand the argument that such action made it easier to trade with countries not having such a strong currency. But it certainly debased it for the worse, I thought, and still think so. Look at one of the old bills that your grandfather may have kept and you will see at the top the words, "Silver Certificate". Silver cannot be counterfeited while paper can.

I still shudder when I think of all those jingling silver coins hitting the streets of Chattanooga, but shudder even more when I hear the feeble, tuneless clink of our almost worthless modern American coinage.

  (Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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