The Penny World
by Mel Robertson
Back in the impecunious days of the 1920's when a penny was worth a cent and one hundred of them made a dollar, the big copper cent or "copper", was the medium of exchange among children. Not only was it the reward for being "a good boy or girl" but also many forms of business catered to the "copper standard" in much the same way as big business catered to the "gold standard" which then governed the business activities of many countries.
One of the features of the penny in 1920 was its relative rarity among children. Most children could turn up one or two a week but that was about it. They never became a glut on the market.
Children of the 1920's didn't expect much and were seldom disappointed. Opportunities to make a cent or two were sought eagerly and no task was despised. I recall one summer when I was nine I contracted to pump water for a family friend who couldn't manage it. This involved at least four buckets a day and eight to ten on Saturday (since it was thought by the lady concerned to be a sin to draw water on Sunday). The pump was an old wooden one which only worked when you threw your whole weight on the handle. It required much pruning and needed at least two dozen strokes to fill a bucket. The round trip to the lady's house was over six blocks. For this I got a few pennies a week. Not that I would
have "made an assignment" if I had not received the money but it was something entirely my own and I cherished it. This task was typical of the things children in the 1920's would undertake in order to acquire a few pennies.
The copper penny had other uses. It was the standard Sunday School collection. Every kid gave one cent except for the odd smart-ass who gave two and never let anyone forget it. Twenty five pennies ensured an afternoon's fun at Burford Fair including trips on the various rides and a belly-full of indigestible food. However, the chief use for a penny was to buy penny candy which then flourished in abundance in most stores.
Children's candy is, of course, still with us but not in the variety and quantity it used to be. What is more important, the children's candy of the 1970's reflects an entirely different attitude towards life than that of the 1920's. To-day we see candy that is attuned to disco dancing and atomic disintegration whereas in the 1920's there was great stress on what is known as "sex roles". By this I mean that the forms in which children's candy came in the 1920's were aimed at the things men and women did in adult life. There were many examples of this. For instance, since many men chewed tobacco there were little licorice plugs for boys to chew and spit, on themselves, on other kids and on the sidewalks. This was a particularly disgusting form of candy for it had a round piece of metal stuck in it. This piece was red with an Indian head on it. It could be swallowed easily and sometimes the sharp prongs were used by aggressive children to scratch their playmates. For the young smoker there were licorice pipes with red and blue candy in the bowls, fat cigars with bilious coloured paper bands and pink cigarettes with red tips. Licorice whips delighted the young horseman or sadist and hard licorice spoons could be shaved into a glass of water to make a nauseating drink when sucked through a length of macaroni. The theme that "women's place is in the home" was promoted by the sale of marshmallow brooms. Scissors and other forms of household equipment were also available.
Not much thought was given to safety by the manufacturers of Children's candy in the 1920's for in addition to the licorice plug, several other popular forms of candy were downright unsafe. Chief of these was the lollipop, or all-day-sucker. This still
flourishes to-day but in the 1920's it came with a hardwood, pointed stick ready to pierce the throat of any child who happened to fall with a lollipop in its mouth. Other potential killers were the large, hard "jaw-breakers" and "bulls-eyes" which sold well inspite of their choking quality and sickening names. The "jaw-breaker" had an additional hidden hazard about it for at the centre was a large rough seed of some sort. This added nothing to the taste of the candy and if eaten, had a real throwing-up quality about it.
Marshmallow was the basis for much penny candy and it came in several forms; both hard and soft. One particularly mouthwatering item was known as "Moses in the Bull Rushes". This was hard marsh|mallow in the form of a coffin (how delicious!). When bitten sideways it opened to reveal a black, candy doll. This cadaver was named "Moses" out of deference to children who went to Sunday School. Necro-philiacs probably called it something else and the comments of local clergymen were never recorded. Soft marshmallow was used to form jack-knives, pigs, dogs, rats, mice, turtles and other yummies children seldom attempted to eat in their original forms. Strange to say, these outwardly revolting candies were popular with children and I never heard of anyone getting coniption fits from consuming a chocolate marshmallow frog.
Of less obnoxious nature were the little suckers with a bag of sherbet attached. The idea of this confection was to dip the sucker into the sherbet until you either consumed it or spilled the sherbet on the ground or on someone's prized sofa. This supposedly highly sophisticated form of candy was noted for its almost complete tastelessness. Of equal
blandness were the little discs of candy sticking to long strips of paper. These sweets adhered to the paper with such tenacity that a child was bound to consume most of the paper along with the candy.
Probably the most pointless of candy in the 1920's was chewing wax. This may still exist to-day and I am dismayed at the thought that it might. Chewing wax was taste and imagination a.t their lowest. It came in the usual array of inedible objects such as bottles, knives, scissors, and pistols. Outwardly it looked rather good but when chewed it became an offensive wad of inelastic, foul-tasting guck, of such a squalid nature that I would question the sanity of any child who bought a second bit.
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There were many seasonal candies in the 1920's. On St. Valentine's Day stores sold sugar hearts and medal which bore such memorable phrases as "Kiss me Quick", "Whoopee", "Oh you Kid", "Will you, huh?", "Take me home, I'm tight", etc. These confections were covered with a dry coating of some sort and although they tasted remarkably like a popular form of laxative were, in fact quite costive, and thus were despised by mothers. Another St. Valentine's treat was the little bag of red hearts. These sold in great quantities inspite of the rumor that the dye on them was made from squashed beetles. At Christmas there were satin candies and "Chicken bones" both of which surprised the biter by exuding blue peanut butter. On St. Patrick's Day there were apt to be medallions with shamrocks on them and a strange type of sea-green boiled candy. I have forgotten the name of this latter confection but it was alleged that its delectable greenness was-derived from arsenic. At Easter, candy eggs of various types and flavours dominated the scene and enticed the child and although Easter Eggs came in marsh-mallow and in hollow chocolate, the solid sugar Easter Egg was Queen of them all. Sugar Easter Eggs cost from .25 cents to $1.00 and consequently were beyond the wildest dreams of the 1920's child. However, most children got at least one during their childhood; the gift most certainly of a loving "aunt" or grandparent. They were composed of solid sugar with the consistency of concrete. Colours were usually yellow, red or pink with lace and roses in complimentary colours. They were really not intended to be eaten but rather to be displayed with the other Easter decorations most families put out for that celebration. I never heard of a child eating one of these eggs. There was a certain reverence about them and to eat one was thought, by children, to
be a sacrilege equal to eating a Bible.
Some candies had other seasonal attractions. Chief of these were the little fake ice cream cones filled with soft marshmallow and decorated with blue and red candy. These were popular with kids of Burford in the spring when they awaited the arrival of real ice-cream which was only available in the summer. These little cones had no taste-resemblance to real ice cream cones but they provided an illusion in a day when ice-cream was much more important to children than it is to-day.
An unusually popular form of penny candy were the hard, rubber-like gumdrop candy toys that came in the form of jelly-babies, plug hats and something which although intended to be a tea-cup, looked so much like the chamber-pots most Burford houses rejoiced in that they caused much merriment. Eating one of these gummy things was an exercise in futility much like attempting to eat an India rubber eraser. However, if a child persevered it could be got down.
Some penny candies had a play quality about them which enabled a child to overlook their tastelessness. One such candy was the little silver ball-bearing. These came in celluloid tubes and in addition to being edible could be shot from pop-guns, blown through pea-shooters, and twanged by elastics into places where their presence was known only after they had been crunched messily underfoot.
One of the most famous seasonal candies in 1920's Burford was a product known by a family name which I will omit out of deference to any surviving members of that family. This appeared once a year at Burford Fair and was sold at only one booth. It began as a long coil of what looked like a rather sticky and overused bath towel. This was cast over a hook on the booth by undershirted, muscular men who then spat on their hands to get a grill pulled the mass into a pliable state. When the proper degree of elasticity had been attained the whole thing was wrestled onto a table where other sweating attendants battled the flies until it was cut into slabs to be sold singly or in boxes of five. This candy was very popular with children and I recall that inspite of its dubious beginnings, was delicious.
Chewing gum was not considered to be a penny candy in the 1920's since it sold at the extravagant price of five sticks for five cents and could only be obtained if an obliging merchant would open a pack and sell one stick. There was an enduring quality about chewing gum. A child could chew a stick for days as long as a suitable night storage place could be found. Indeed, the durability of chewing gum inspired a popular garden-party comic song "Does the Chewing Gum Lose its flavour on the bedpost Overnight?". A strange rumour surrounded chewing gum in the 1920's as it was alleged that the Wrigley Gum company would give a full-sized Gypsy Moth aeroplane to anyone who found a certain number under a gum wrapper. This rumour must have been started by someone who hoped that it would prevent litter and it was not an uncommon sight to see children picking up gum wrappers and examining the numbers under the glued flap (before throwing them on the ground again). Parents, I imagine, prayed that this was a baseless rumour and they they would not wake up some morning to find that the postmaster had tried to shove a full-sized Gypsy Moth aeroplane into their mailbox.
Mention of the Wrigley gum rumour brings up the world of premiums, prizes and contests that played a big part in the life of a 1920's child but this is a subject it itself and will be dealt with in a later article.
Penny candy was kept in those tall glass jars many people now cherish as antiques. They stood in stately rows in stores and bore their prices proudly in letters of enduring crayon. Seldom was one article offered for one cent. The rate was at least two for a cent and could range as high as six. A child with a cent to spend was always accompanied by friends and no store proprietor or clerk thought it above his, or her, dignity to wait until the bevy of erstwhile customers weighed the pros and cons of the large assortment of bottled goodies. If there were more than six expectant friends ways had to be devised whereby everyone received a fair share. For example, if the candy was too hard to break an agreement might be struck permitting one child to suck the bit until it was half gone. Then it was passed to someone who had not rated a full share. Unsanitary? -No wonder so many children suffered from flat feet! Children of the 1920's operated on the principle "You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die" and chewing someone else's candy came under that category. Parents might rage at the thought of the germs involved but I think, in the long run, that they were more concerned about their children picking up "nits" from unwashed playmates than they were about the spread of "Housemaid's Knee."
Candy was not the only thing that could be purchased for a penny in the 1920's. There was a considerable variety of "Penny Toys". These consisted of little tigers, lions and horses on wheeled platforms, tiny motorcars, water pistols and other things that are now prized by collectors of antique toys and which, if obtainable, cost hundreds of times their original cost. One particular penny toy was a little china doll. It was about 2 inches long with yellow hair and moulded-to-the-body arms and legs. Mention of this type of "Penny Toy" is very appropriate in this year when the treasures of King Tutankhamen are being displayed throughout Canada, for on$ a summer's afternoon in 1922 a small group of Burford children including myself, buried one of these little dolls in what was our idea of "King Tut's Tomb." This included various childish treasures, a little coffin of sorts, a burial chamber and other things that our imagination could conjure up from the tremendous amount of news coverage the real tomb received. The living members of this little group of long ago may be interested to know that our bit of childish whimsey remains undiscovered. Now and then, when I pass the site I chuckle to think that someday someone digging there will discover our "King Tut" and wonder what sort of silly people went to all that trouble to bury a penny toy. I hope they will get a good laugh out of it.
The cent, or penny, is not worth much in 1979 other than the price of a book of matches or, occassionally, fifteen minutes of parking. It is still part of a number of sayings such as "A penny for your thoughts", "He has the first penny he ever made", "He has more dollars than cents (Sense)" "A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned", etc., so I will close this article by saying that I have had "my two cent's worth" which in 1922 would have been an extravagant statement.