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My Two Bits Worth

July 31, 2011

Toonie (Canadian $2 coin)For my son’s 30th birthday a couple of weeks ago, I decided to ‘gift’ him with little packages of 30 things (30 peanut butter cups, 30 Hershey Kisses, 30 lollipops, 30 fortune cookies, 30 ‘hundred-dollar bill’ napkins … you get the idea).   I had decided to include 30 ‘pieces of silver’ (not with any religious connotation, but simply because it was a well known example of ’30-something’), and started digging through purses, pockets, and the giant change jar on top of the kitchen pantry for quarters (not that they contain much silver these days, but they LOOK like pieces of silver).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with 30 of them (I managed to find only 21), so I used 30 ‘toonies’ (Canada’s two dollar coin) instead (they’re silverish on the outside, so I figured they’d do).  I keep a ‘stash’ of them for parking meters and tips, so it was easy to scrounge up 30 (and I figured he’d rather have $60 than $7.50 anyway).  But as I dropped those 21 quarters back in the change jar, I couldn’t help thinking back to what ‘two bits’ used to get you ‘way back when’ (i.e., when I was young).

Piece of Eight (Replica)History Lesson:  the term ‘two bits’ (twenty-five cents, or ‘a quarter’) comes from the colonial period in history (late 1700s), when Spanish milled dollars (‘pieces of eight’) were a common unit of currency.  These coins could be cut into eight pieces (like a pie) – called ‘bits’ – to purchase items, or to make change; each bit was worth 12.5 cents (therefore ‘two bits’, or ¼ of the coin = 25 cents). 

In the mid 1960s, the average ‘working man’s’ wage was in the neighbourhood of $1.75 to $2.00 an hour.  That’s seven or eight quarters earned (before taxes) for every hour of work.  At the grocery store, a quarter would get you: 

    • Kelloggs Corn Flakesa box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
    • one pound of chicken
    • one pound of bacon
    • one pound of ‘hamburger’ (regular ground beef)
    • 3 jars of Gerber baby food
    • a bottle of Heinz ketchup
    • a jar of Bick’s pickles
    • 3 boxes of Kraft dinner
    • 3 packages of Jell-o
    • an 8 oz package of Oreos
    • a head of lettuce
    • 6 cobs of corn
    • a loaf of bread
    • a quart of milk

A&W

    If you wanted to go out for lunch, 25 cents would get you a hamburger (15 cents) and fries (10 cents) at McDonald’s (a drink was another 10 cents).   Prices at the local A & W Drive-In were similar (although the experience was different – the waitress would come to your car to take your order and deliver your meal on a tray that hung from the car window).  A medium pizza at the local pizza parlour would set you back four quarters ($1.00); so would a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, or an ‘Italian sandwich’. If you were ‘of age’, and frequented the Halton Hotel, you could get a half pint of beer for 25 cents (or a ‘tray’ of 25 glasses for $5.00 – no one ordered beer in pitchers back then!)

Twenty-five cents would also get you:

  • Five Cent Newspapera gallon of gas (in the early 60s; by 1965 it had gone up to 31 cents a gallon)
  • five first-class postage stamps
  • five daily newspapers
  • a small pack of cigarettes

From a strictly personal viewpoint, I remember twenty-five cents getting me:

    • Tilt-A-Whirla return trip to the far side of town on the Crosstown bus
    • five rides on the Ferris Wheel or the Tilt-a-Whirl at the carnival
    • admission to the (single screen) Odeon theatre (where you could buy a box of popcorn and a ‘soda’ at the concession counter and receive five cents in change)
    • a round of bowling (shoe rental was also a quarter, I think, although it may have been a dime; I do know that my weekly allowance of $1.00 got me an entire day’s entertainment, including snacks)
    • a platter of French fries at the Cosy Corner Restaurant
    • an ice cream soda or a sundae or a milkshake at Ramsey’s Drug Store
    • a hot dog and fries at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s (where you absolutely HAD to spend another ten cents on a grape soda!)
    • a ‘family size’ bag of Lay’s potato chips (good for sharing with your friends)
    • Penny Candya can of pop and a bag of potato chips or a chocolate bar (10 cents each), as well as five cents worth of ‘penny candy’ (the candy store sold blackballs, liquorice whips, gumdrops, Tootsie Rolls, salt water taffy, Mojos, bubblegum, and a huge assortment of other candy at two or three for a penny – you could come out of there with an ENORMOUS bag of cavity-inducing sweets for a quarter, let me tell you!)
    • a big bag of warm ‘Baby Bunny’ nuts (Virginia peanuts or redskins, heated in a rotating cylinder and served in paper bags)
    • three GIANT homemade cookies (sugar, peanut butter, oatmeal, chocolate chip) at Thorton’s bakery (10 cents each or 3 for 25 cents)
    • five popsicles or five Mr. Freeze pops
    • a brand new box of 64 pencil crayons
    • a three ring binder (with 100 sheets of paper already inside!)
    • a ‘three pack’ of white cotton underpants or a garter belt or three pairs of ‘stockings’ at Woolworth’s
    • a 45 RPM record; LPs (‘albums’) were $1.50
    • Nancy Drew Booka new (hard cover) Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, or Hardy Boys book (or two comic books with change – they were 10 cents each)
    • a skipping rope (10 cents), a hula hoop (10 cents) and a rubber ball (5 cents) from the ‘five and dime’ store (Kresge’s)
    • two and a half phone calls home from a pay phone (my mother used to make my sister and I put dimes in our ‘penny loafers’ or secured under our watchbands for ‘emergencies’)
    • three or four quarters would buy a brand new Barbie doll outfit (the dolls themselves were only $3.00)

I am sure there were dozens of other things I bought for a quarter (or less) – and I probably still have some of them tucked away somewhere (or on display as ‘antiques’).  Money, back then, had more ‘value’, I think – not necessarily monetarily (i.e., what it could buy you) but emotionally (i.e., how hard you had to work to earn it, and how little of it there was to ‘spare’).  Credit didn’t exist for the ‘common man’ (or woman), so you only bought what you could pay for out of your pocket or wallet.  There was less frivolous spending, more consideration for purchases made, and more angst if you realized you’d ‘wasted your money’ on something that didn’t last or wouldn’t work.  The cost of living has changed drastically in the past century (see: 100 Years of Change) and the debt load of the average Canadian has reached epidemic proportions (see:  Money Management 101), yet we still don’t respect money the way we should. 

I sometimes think it would be great to go back (even for just a little while) to a time when ‘two bits’ could buy you an afternoon of enjoyment, or a meal – just like that time long, long before I reached … the other side of 55.

My Allowance 1965

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6 Comments
  1. August 11, 2011 1:37 pm

    I remember filling up my car’s gas tank for three dollars, and paying fifteen cents for a slice of pizza. I also remember when my salary hit two dollars an hour — I felt like a millionaire.

    This was a great post. It must have taken a lot of time to find all this information, but thank you for doing it.

    • August 12, 2011 9:29 am

      I earned $60 a week at my first job – when I got a $5 raise, it was like I’d won the lottery! It’s hard to believe sometimes how much prices have changed over the years. I remember buying a new car back in the early 80s for $4800 and my father saying ‘That’s more than I paid for my first house!’. I laughed. Five years ago, I bought another new car (for $30,000) and the first thing I thought was ‘That’s more than I paid for my first house!’. I wonder what prices will be like in another 40 years?!?!?!? Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Margo

  2. August 2, 2011 2:35 am

    I was telling my son about stuff like this the other day and he couldn’t believe it. When I told him it used to cost $1.50 to go to the movies he nearly fell over. It now costs $20.00 to go to the movies in Australia – it’s madness. Things were definitely simpler and more affordable back in the day. It seems like a lifetime ago now!

    • August 2, 2011 11:51 am

      My kids were going through some of my old photo albums a while back and saw a ticket stub for a concert I went to in 1967 (Herman’s Hermits, with The Who opening for them … whoda’ thunk?) – floor seats, 18th row – $5.50. They were STUNNED – the price for a floor ticket at a concert of that ‘magnitude’ (HH were pretty big in the 60s!) would cost $100 or more today. And I know what you mean about movie ticket prices – admission for two plus refreshments means taking out a second mortgage on the house!

      Margo

  3. July 31, 2011 10:45 pm

    …and as an 11-year-old babysitter for the neighbor’s little kids, I earned two bits an hour. It felt like a fortune to me!

    • August 1, 2011 10:27 am

      I used to get twenty-five cents for taking care of one child and thirty-five cents for two or more. My brother (who is significantly older than me) used to drive 25 miles to pick me up and take me back to his house to look after my three nephews because I was ‘reliable’ (ha ha ha – I was ‘cheap’, and I’d stay overnight if they wanted to be out late; he’d drive me home the next day). If we offered anyone a quarter to do just about anything these days, they’d simply laugh at us!

      Margo

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