Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Running barefoot along the dusty road, I scurried over to the Pittsburg Store with a nickel clutched tightly in my hand, only to discover that pop was now six cents a bottle. Fern had put in a new pop machine and there was an extra penny slot beside the nickel one. I stared at the machine in disbelief but soon she came around from behind the counter with a key, opened the machine, and sold me the last bottle of pop I ever purchased for a nickel.

Fern had been reluctant to raise prices even as she paid higher and higher wholesale costs for her merchandise, and held out longer than most shopkeepers. But finally there was no alternative. It was 1955 and prices were skyrocketing!

Chewing gum, pop, ice cream cones, candy bars, potato chips, kool aid, bubblegum, small boxes of crayons, writing tablets and many other items that cost a nickel in 1950 doubled in price by 1960. The culprit was a new coined word called "inflation." Because of increased demand, prices shot up faster than wages, and the value of the dollar continually shrank. Jobs were easy to find and there was general prosperity, yet prices rose to the highest levels in history, and these rapid increases were the subject of much complaining.

First manufacturers reduced the size of such items as candy bars, bags of potato chips and packaged goods. Pop bottles were made with thicker glass so as to contain less liquid. Next the price increases came. First a penny, then two pennies, and by the end of the decade most of the nickel items were a dime.

More places of employment fell under the government requirement to pay minimum wages, which doubled from fifty cents an hour during World War II to one dollar an hour in 1957! Restaurants and small businesses were exempt but competition eventually forced wage increases.

My beginning salary at Barker Equipment Company in September, 1959 was a dollar two and one-half cents/hour (a full two and one-half cents above minimum wage.) A forty-hour week netted me $40.39 after taxes! My father shook his head in disbelief when he saw my first pay stub. "Such incredible wages!" he said as I then half listened to a long tirade about people working for two dollars a day back in "normal times."

Cigarette prices jumped during the 1950s from 24 cents/pack to an average of 33 cents by 1960. Utility prices jumped, and food prices soared. For example, hamburger in the store increased from 29 to an unbelievable 89 cents per pound. With everything increasing, the average familyís food bill doubled in size. A new Ford with a few extras sold for $1,100 in 1951, but the cheapest new car that could be purchased in 1959 was $1,995 plus tax.

Hamburgers in the Keosauqua restaurants went from 25 to 30 cents each, and by 1960 the merchants were charging an extra nickel for cheese! Plate lunch specials in Keosauqua also increased. A 60 cent lunch at the Goodie Garden in 1950 rose to 85 cents by 1959 and coffee prices doubled from a nickel to a dime per cup.

Mabel Millerís hotel restaurant was well known for serving quality food at a reasonable price, although it was the most expensive eating place in town. Linen table cloths, napkins, and actual silverware gave the dining room class. But Mabelís prices were also gouged by inflation. Lunches that included coffee and dessert averaged 85 to 95 cents in 1955; but by 1960 the same meals ranged in price from $1.05 to $1.20!

During the same timeframe, gasoline prices soared about 30%. But we figured out ways to fight inflation! Sometimes there were occasional "price wars" that allowed incredible savings like the one in 1959 when Fairfield lowered their gas prices to 19.9 cents per gallon. One station on the west side of town boldly advertised gas at 18.9 with a free ice cream cone to everyone in the car. Ten of us crammed ourselves into an automobile and collected our free ice cream after filling the half-full tank for just under one dollar! We would pull similar stunts on "buck night" at the Drive-in Theatre in Fairfield. And once in 1960 we drove over to East Moline, Illinois and enjoyed thick, juicy McDonald hamburgers and malts for only 15 cents each!

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick