My colleague Bernhard Mingia wrote an evocative piece in yesterday's paper about the closing of Robert D. Green's little variety store near the government Printing Office on North Capitol Street. trhe headline, "Store Goes the Way of Penny Candy," got me to thinking.
Penny candy! Who remembers penny candy? Folks my age, still years short of Social Security, that's who.
You could go -- here I'm talking of the early 1930s -- to the corner variety store and buy a flat penny piece of gum roughly 1 1/2 by 2 inches in size that was enclosed with a baseball or football card. For one cent, one could buy a rope-like strip of chewy licorice or fruit-flavored candy. Where I grew up, you could buy "butterballs," which were sweet butter-flavored hard candies the size of large marbles, three for a penny.
Another colleague, Victor Cohn, who grew up in Minneapolis, recalls buying penny candies called Tries -- if they had a particular kind of center, one would qualify for the prize of a nickel bar. It was an early form of lottery.
You could buy a penny-sized Butterfingers bar, which seems in recollection to be about one fifth the size of the present 40-cent version, or you could buy a penny Baby Ruth.
Three Musketeers cost a nickel, but -- here's how the confection got its name -- it was three separately wrapped bars with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry interiors. The present 40-cent version is a single bar with chocolate inside.
Ah, those were the days. A nickel bought a hot dog, a classic Coke, a bag of popcorn with real melted butter, a single-scoop ice cream cone or a cup of coffee; a dime could buy a hamburger, a movie admission for one under 12 or, in some places, a milkshake.
Would I go back? Would I trade the $18.50 a week -- yes, that figure is accurate -- earned as a reporter on my first big-city newspaper job for the somewhat higher stipend I now receive?
No. But the kids are missing the fun of going to the store, clutching that now-devalued copper coin and making their decisions, and one thinks they're poorer for lacking the economic lesson it entailed.