My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
The Price of Progress

This account was written in 1997 and published in the March-April 1997 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred puts the cost of living in perspective.

It is hard to believe but easy to remember what prices and income were "way back when" if you've been through it. A man's job paid two dollars a day, if he could get one, and he cut wood and hauled it seven miles with a four-horse team, delivered it for five dollars a cord, then shared with a helper so they'd both have some money. Of course we had to feed those horses whether they worked or not, but if you could catch a farmer in a pinch, he would sell you a ton of hay for five dollars—about the same price as a cord of wood.

I was lucky. My job at the school lunchroom brought me fifty dollars a month out of which I paid my mother-in-law twenty dollars to babysit my two preschoolers so we would both have some money.

We always had a few cows and chickens, and I had a steady milk customer. She paid me ten cents a quart for milk, and I could sell three or four old hens to buy enough dotted-swiss material to make the girls a prom dress. Small matter that the little colored specks melted out in the wash tub and what you had left was dotted-swiss without the dots.

Surplus eggs brought twelve cents a dozen, and butter fat was fourteen cents a pound. A one-pound loaf of bread sold for ten cents, but I baked mine because it was cheaper. And I made a yeast starter part of the time, so I could save five cents on two cakes of yeast.

Hamburger was ten cents a pound, and I could feed my family meat loaf for fifteen cents, if I stretched it with bread crumbs and an egg or two.

Keeping the kids shod was an all-time problem, but by the end of World War II, someone had invented composition soles. They didn't wear like leather and wouldn't hold tacks for half soles, but I could buy shoes for my smaller kids for ninety-eight cents a pair.

No, we didn't subscribe to a daily paper, but we did buy one now and then—if we had an extra nickel. Good magazines were twenty-five cents, but that was a luxury and who had money for luxuries?

We sewed our own clothes. Pretty cotton prints were twenty-nine and thirty-nine cents a yard, and thread was five cents a spool.

In certain localities, people could sell huckleberries for a dollar a gallon, kids peddled papers, and hunted empty pop bottles, old discarded tires, etc., for spending money or to help buy their school clothes.

Some farm wives paid a hired girl up to a dollar a day—and board—through the summer months to help with cooking for the haying crews, canning, gardening, and taking care of small children.

Jack's Dining Car, a café in Missoula, was a haven for the working man, serving an ample lunch for fifty cents. Some years later, a neighbor told of going to town to find parts for some machinery he was repairing. Whenever he bought an item, he felt in his overalls pocket, making sure that he had that little round coin saved to pay for his noon meal. At last, his plate wiped clean of the last smear of gravy, he reached in his pocket and came up with—a washer—that he'd deposited there at the start of his repair job!

No, we had no telephone, no electricity, no television, no indoor plumbing.

Then my husband bid in a school bus route at $175 a month. He had to make payments on the bus, make any needed repairs, and buy gasoline at thirty-five cents a gallon. I got myself a new job that paid $110 a month—six days a week. Things were getting better. We could, once in a while, go to a movie and have a hamburger afterward. That was living!

With each small improvement, life became a little easier. We made the best of our circumstances and didn't miss the things we'd never had. We'd never heard of stress, credit cards, no cholesterol, and I believe we were as happy as people are today—and had far less to worry about.