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April, 1962

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 itself.

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 reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1962; "When Money was in Flower"; Volume 209, No. 4; pages 135-136.

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