When Money Was in Flower
by Charles W. Morton
Anything written about the effect of money on life in the United States ought
to be in the past tense. There was a time, that is, when money really meant
something. A dollar was not an infinitesimal sum; neither was a nickel. One
recalls a reverse-English witticism, "It's only money," which was mentioned
when a price seemed exorbitant, and which might even get a laugh from those who
hadn't heard it before. But nowadays, the same line would be played straight,
and all within hearing would amiably concur: it's only money, and what it will
buy is very little indeed.
To begin thinking about prices as, for example, they stood at the beginning of
World War I is to be overwhelmed by reminders of what a dollar used to do for
its owner. Many daily papers cost a cent, and a nickel on Sunday, and home
delivery to the subscriber was a matter of about $5.00 a year for what costs
today just nine times as much. As a schoolboy I used to lodge at the McAlpin
when I was hard up, in a comfortable room, well kept, for $2.00 a day, and when
in funds, at the Waldorf, a block away, for $3.50. The Ritz-Carlton was a
little too steep for me at $4.00 to $5.00, and I still regard the Thirty-fourth
Street Waldorf as the most glamorous and exciting hotel in my experience.
The treat for a schoolboy at the Waldorf was a pot of chocolate in the Men's
Cafe; the portion consisted, simply, of a large silver pot of rich bittersweet
chocolate, a large silver pot of scalded milk, and a long silver dish piled
with heavy whipped cream--all grouped on a silver tray at a tariff of
thirty-five cents. As a generous tipper, appreciative of good service, one gave
a waiter or bellboy a quarter. There were no hotel maids; at any rate they
worked when no one was around and without demanding cash in advance for
straightening up a room.
To return briefly to the nickel: it would buy, in packages of ten, Hassan or
Mecca cigarettes, with a colored photograph thrown in of a celebrated
ballplayer or prizefighter of the time; a variety of domestic cigars (when
Havana cigars were about three for a half-dollar); a ride in the subway; and
much of the contents of what was, in all truth, the five-and-ten-cent store.
The hottest competition at this price was among the saloons, most of which
boasted of putting out the biggest five-cent schooner of beer in town.
The real competition by saloons lay in the nickel beer and equally in the
quality and variety of the free lunch offered with it. A certain amount of
etiquette, no doubt, governed how heartily one might feed on the basis of a
single schooner without a lift of the bartender's eyebrow, yet the free lunch
in a first-class saloon was a vast assortment of cold dishes, possibly a hot
delicacy or two like melted cheese on toast, but often flanked by a standing
roast of beef and a ham, both of towering dimensions.
In a Chicago bar called Righeimer's, the free lunch was a ham or roast beef
sandwich of extraordinary quality, prepared by an elderly Negro who used a
slicing knife in each hand and turned out elegantly thin sandwiches without
handling them, offering them to the customer on the extended blade of a knife;
the style and dexterity in this operation were as attractive as the sandwich
Theater tickets, for the thirty or forty attractions available of a winter
evening in New York, were somewhere around $2.00 to $2.50 for the best seats
and considerably less in the balconies. After the theater one went not to a
nightclub but to a cabaret such as Shanley's, Churchill's, or perhaps--a few
years later--the Midnight Frolic on the New Amsterdam roof. For two or three
dollars a head, one found not only first-rate entertainment in these places but
also notably good food and drink; the competition among their kitchens was just
as serious as that among the good restaurants. One other quip of that period
points up what a dollar would do: the man who was complaining to the waiter
about being charged a dollar for an order of corned beef and cabbage and who
said, "You couldn't LIFT a dollar's worth of corned beef and cabbage."
Copyright © 1962 by Charles W. Morton. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1962; "When Money was in Flower"; Volume 209, No.