Put another nickel in…Just what could a nickel buy just before World War II?

#462 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 2004, Hills Newspapers

Calling all of you who are age 60 or more, I need your brains. I’m looking for help with a list I’m making, things that a nickel bought in 1941.
1941 was the year that I was born. It is also the year that a certain house on Silverwood Avenue in Oakland, one that Anet and I will be putting on the market before long, was built. Coincidentally, my family lived just around the corner from this house in the Laurel district, and I still remember going for walks with my mother in the neighborhood when I was very young. We must have walked right past our new listing a number of times.

I remember many experiences in this neighborhood, one of them a most exciting thing. A man with a horse and wagon drove along those streets calling out for metals and fat, which I was later told, were used in the war effort.

And I remember going with my mother to the butcher shop on the corner of MacArthur and Maple, and that she used money, of course, to buy meat, but also ration stamps from a book.

Later, probably 1950 or so, my sister and I were allowed to walk to the corner grocery store on Maple. And when invited to a friend’s birthday party, we got a dollar to take to the variety store on MacArthur. As we entered, we’d tell the proprietor Mrs. Dupuis the age of the birthday child and she’d help us find a suitable and affordable gift.

Brand new in 1941. I really got into nostalgia over both the house and me being born in the same year, in pretty much the same location, and I began to think about what things cost back then.

It probably wasn’t until I entered school that I was first aware of any prices. That was when my friends and I had a penny or a nickel to spend at the corner store. For a penny each, a wide array of sweets was available to us, including jawbreakers, Lik-M-Aid in packets, Bazooka bubble gum, Kits and rootbeer barrels, and my favorite, Queen Anne Butterballs, a deal at 2 for a penny.

But it’s what could be bought for a nickel in the 1940s that I have become focused on. Certainly Coca-Cola in a bottle sold from those red metal coolers with a flip-back top, the bottles up to their necks in water and ice, was 5 cents. And just about all candy bars cost a nickel.

Popsicles were a nickel, Dreamsicles and Twin Pops, Fudgesicles and such, also a box of Cracker Jack with a much better prize than they’ve got today. Bubble gum packs with baseball cards must have been a nickel. I didn’t collect baseball cards, but I remember boys I knew buying the packs and ripping them open in a rush to see which player’s card they’d got.

As I ran through my memories, I became more curious and so decided to do some research. I went to the Internet thinking that it would be easy to find a list, not just foods, but other things five cents would purchase about the time I was born.

I tried lots of things, searching each time with “1940s” attached: cost of goods, food costs, consumer prices, market basket, newspaper ads and archives, etc. I spent hours on the computer dumbfounded that the list I had envisioned did not seem to exist.

Not that there was no information available at all. I learned quite a lot about money in the Forties. In 1941, according to one source, a new car cost $850; a gallon of gas, 12 cents; average annual salary, $1,299, while a teacher’s salary was $1,441 (that’s pretty interesting); national debt, $43 billion.

I found a carhop site on which former drive-in carhops posted reminiscences of serving sodas and fries and burgers on metal trays hung from car windows. Flo Hayes was one, a carhop in Kansas City from 1941 to 1967, and she loved it. She made, she writes, a dollar a day, $5.92 a week, plus tips (a dime was a big one). What year this was true is not clear. But in 1941, it was the case says Flo that, “Hamburgers and frosties for you and your date would set you back 40 cents.”

Another site revealed that at the A &P, 2 dozen oranges in 1941 cost 29 cents, a little over a penny each. And the Savannah Morning news cost 5 cents. Ah, so a weekday newspaper was a nickel, and probably a cup of coffee, as was, I read, a scoop of ice cream at a fountain. But what else?

My quest had turned out to be so difficult, when I had thought it would be a snap, that I was hooked. I had to go on. At the suggestion of friends, I contacted by email a professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley, Martha Olney. She was wonderful. Professor Olney wrote back to me with a website for comparing today’s dollar with yesterday’s, I learned there that 8 cents in 1941 had the same purchasing power as $1 today.

And, to better understand the concept, I was also directed to to read about work-time prices, the amount of time someone would have to work to make various purchases. In a lengthy and most interesting report made in 1997, the Dallas Federal Reserve explains what the real cost of goods was over the previous hundred years.

But I still did not have my answer, and so I turned to the feds, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then to the Consumer Price Index people. Nope, nothing. CPI has available only limited food and energy price info, came the reply, and that from the 1970s, but nothing as far back as I want.

I haven’t gone to the library yet to look at their newspaper archives, especially the ads. That’s my last hope – except for you.

Do you remember what cost a nickel in the 1940s? Right now I’ve got on my nickel list Coca-Cola, the daily newspaper, almost any candy bar, a popsicle and a scoop of ice cream at a fountain, local call on a payphone, box of Cracker Jack, bubble gum pack with baseball card, and a cup of coffee.

Am I right? Do you know any more?

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