One of my favorite pass-along email attachments is a copy of a 1950s F. W. Woolworth Co. menu extolling the virtues of Woolworth’s “Super Jumbo Banana Split” at the outlandish price of 39 cents.
In those day at the Woolworth lunch counter, you could buy a “Super Deluxe” ham sandwich for 40 cents, and wash it down with “King Size” Coca-Cola for a dime.
On the surface it seems a far cry from the prices we pay today for our “Fast Food.” Although if you are a prudent shopper you can find some real bargains out there on the street bargains like 60-cent hamburgers on certain days from Mickey D’s, 85-cent five-layer burritos from Taco Bell, and breakfast sausage biscuits for a dollar or less from a variety of drive-through food purveyors.
There is a certain nostalgia connected to that old Woolworth menu. I was attending military school in Missouri in the 1950s when these prices prevailed. My allowance as an underclassman was $2 a week. I doubled that my senior year by becoming the battalion mess sergeant and head waiter at $4 a week, the highest paying student job on the campus.
I could afford the Super Jumbo Banana Splits, and my girlfriend loved them. We only got off campus three or four times a week. A good movie at the local theater cost a quarter, a box of popcorn 10 cents, and a regular Coke just a nickel. A great date only cost me a total of $1.39 — I skipped the banana split and substituted the King Size Coca-Cola. We had a good time on virtually nothing by today’s standards.
But is that really true? A dollar and thirty-nine cents in those days represented 35 percent of my weekly income. Today I can buy a half dozen Mickey D cheap hamburgers and the total cost of them represents slightly more than one-half of 1 percent of my average weekly Social Security income. Throw in a Coke or two and some French fries and I would probably be pushing the 1 percent mark.
That’s a vast improvement in purchasing power for me over the last 50-60 years. Looking at the cost of things in real money terms, we have made similar strides in most foodstuffs and many of the other necessities we require. Yet we complain.
Mostly our complaints have to do with the cost of the extras that we seem to think are necessities today. I could name a few, i.e. smart phones, giant flat screen TVs, cars that talk to us, etc., but each individual’s list would be different. Some items that would be extras for me, may be necessities for you. It’s all in how we approach life today.
Comparing banana splits of yesterday to cheap hamburgers today is no scientific economic study — while it does not take into consideration all other living expenses of both eras, it does give us a basis for looking at just how far we have come in the last five or six decades.
Take for instance the fact that at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Missouri in the 1950s, no black man or woman would be served. In those days we still had separate drinking fountains and rest rooms. The only black people on the campus of the military school I attended were the 18 men with whom I worked in the mess hall and kitchen.
Or the fact that there were separate schools for blacks and whites in many areas of the country. When I went on active duty in the U.S. Army in 1955, half of the men who were the products of black schools could not pass the basic entrance exam for the military. The services were being integrated at the time, and this serious education deficit was one of the big hindrances in completing that integration.
Women, who still dressed up to go to the grocery store in those days, were pretty well home bound, even though many of them had taken jobs in industry a decade earlier to free up men for combat in World War II. They were a vast untapped pool of talent, forced by old traditions to stay out of the work force.
There were still a lot of people in this country who had little or nothing to put on their tables. There were few food subsidy programs available to those who were stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.
If we look back over the last 50-60 years we can see just how far we have come in this country in spite of all the “serious” problems we are constantly told we face today.
The 1960s were a decade of real change for this country. We were trying to fight foreign wars we were not allowed to win, and minorities and folks who saw these mistakes developed strong voices. They were the roots of the most far-reaching changes that have ever taken place in this country.
As a result we opened up educational opportunities for everyone. That some chose not to avail themselves of them and continued to consider themselves victims of the system is not the fault of those who fought successfully to make those opportunities available.
Slowly, and often painfully, we absorbed minorities into the work force making it possible for anyone with the will and the physical and mental abilities to make a living.
At the same time we developed safety net programs for those who could not compete due to physical or mental limitations. Some call them “entitlements” today; but as originally designed these programs were not meant to be for those who thought they were entitled to an extra hand up from the more capable. They were designed to help make life bearable for those who could not fend for themselves.
Somewhere along the line, some people – those who did not want to take advantage of the advanced opportunities that were being offered to help them become a part of the main stream – chose successfully to “work” the system. There are many out there today who, as a result, think the system owes them a living – that they are “entitled” to the wealth of others without having to pay the price.
I’ll stack this country up against any other in the advances and improvements we have made in the standard of living of the vast majority of Americans over the last half-century. That it is not perfect is as much a matter of conjecture as it is a matter of fact.
As the Virginia Slim cigarette commercial used to say: “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
To be a part of all of this has been a great privilege, and we of the older generations should have a good sense of accomplishment for what has been done to advance the welfare of millions of people in this country.
Would I want to go back to that segregated lunch counter at the F. W. Woolworth Co. and enjoy another of those “King Size” Coco-Colas for a dime? I don’t think so.
Dave Whitney is a retired journalist and adventurer who has won many writing awards. He was born and raised in central Ohio, attended school in Missouri, served in the US Army Security Agency, and migrated to Florida a half century ago. Author of four books, he is a former Associated Press writer/editor and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize during his writing career. As editor and founder of the Free Press newspapers in the Florida Keys he was the first publisher to pick up Frank Kaiser’s “Suddenly Senior” column when it entered syndication. Whitney currently resides in Lakeland, Fla., after living 25 years in the Florida Keys.
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