Just the other day, a retired pal sent a computer image that poked me in the gut and wallet simultaneously.
It s a simple, one-page Woolworth s menu from some time in the mid-1950s, as near as I can guess.
This buddy, now enjoying his senior years too, is a classmate who graduated with me from Elyria High School in 1960. The menu is exactly like the ones we ordered from during our high school years.
Our memories of lunch counters of that era have to be similar because we went to many of the same places and probably ordered the same items. The five-and-dime stores, including the ones in the Toledo area, I ll bet, all had lunch counters that were basically clones of each other.
Occasionally my pal enjoys jogging my memory with reminders of that innocent time. Some of his reminiscences, like this one, are pleasant because they rekindle memories of things we enjoyed so much long ago.
They are also bittersweet. They stir a touch of sadness for me as I wonder if teenagers today, who seem to enjoy limitless choices in almost everything, know what we seniors are talking about when we mention the simple pleasures.
Sounds like a geezer talking, right? Well, then mark me down as a certified geezer, because I think kids today are being shortchanged by the complexity of the times. But I ll save that for the next time I m on my soapbox.
Back to the Woolworth s menu.
What struck me immediately is the gastronomic simplicity of the food choices. The food was plain, yet reasonably tasty, and served in the sort of austere surroundings that would likely be unimaginable by most contemporary high school students.
We wouldn t have known what ambiance was unless it came with a side of fries. Or our English teacher made us look it up in the dictionary.
I must note here that this was at the dawn of the era of the Golden Arches, long before there was a McDonald s every few blocks or even in every city. The first McDonald s in Elyria replaced another tiny joint where 15-cent burgers attracted crowds every day.
The early McDonald s eateries that my crowd frequented in Elyria and Lorain were still touting their burgers with a billion sold in the 1950s, long before they got to double-digit billions and then lost count.
The earliest McDonald s had no tables and chairs for diners, just carry-out windows to order, pay and move over to make way for the next customer. They had not yet become teen hangouts.
The popular 30-cent sandwiches at places like Woolworth s were mainly ham salad, egg salad, cheese and occasionally something a bit pricier with sliced ham or bacon. Menus in most places were rarely more than a single page, sometimes two.
But it wasn t the sandwiches that attracted the teenagers. The standard fare brought in their parents who shopped downtown and took a break for lunch. Remember, this was also before the advent of shopping malls.
It was the Fountain Features section of the menu, where milk shakes, malteds and banana splits were the attraction. Ice cream fountains manned by soda jerks were also a popular teenager destination at most drug stores, where you could get a cherry Coke made with real Coke syrup, or even a chocolate Coke, or maybe a lemon phosphate.
After school was out every day, a conga line of students made its way to those fountains. Some kids had their boyfriend or girlfriend in tow, while others were part of a clique that stopped for socializing before walking home.
On Saturdays when the 10-cent, double bill, B-westerns or horror flicks and cheesy serial chapter of the week ended at the movie house, the fountain stools and booths filled again.
Now for the part that makes my wallet quiver, click on the menu above for a readable enlargement and look at the prices. A milk shake, malted, sundae or regular banana split is a quarter. Pie or cake is a tasty 15 cents.
But the special deal is the Super Jumbo Banana Split. In those days, it was for the big spenders at 39 cents.
If you wanted to impress your date after splurging on a 25-cent, first-run movie, this was what you got. Cheapskates on a date got one of the quarter ice cream desserts.
At 39 cents, we re talking a serious banana split, with three hefty scoops of ice cream, usually chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, straddled by a whole, sliced banana in a long dish.
The ice cream was hidden beneath generous gobs of crushed pineapple, strawberries and chocolate sauce Naturally, nuts, whipped cream and a cherry crowned the dish.
Does anyone, anywhere even make such a banana split anymore?
Now, I know you re most likely thinking that a quarter or 39 cents back then was no different for a kid on a small allowance than an ice cream treat today.
But I can t help doing a little math to show why I think we had it better as kids.
Most seniors I know seem to agree that the standard rule-of-thumb in comparing costs in the 1950s to now is a multiplier of about 10. It s most likely a phony figure, especially when generalizing, but it s a number we settle on.
That means a $2,000 car back than would go for about $20,000 in 2008. Or a $19,000 home would sell now for about $190,000.
However, there are some price changes that simply defy those simplistic figures and are way beyond the 10-fold estimate.
Take for example, those 25-cent movies. They re now approaching $10, more like 40 times the old price. And the 10-cent bag of popcorn is now $3.
I could find dozens more examples where the multiplier of 10 isn t even close. And I suppose I could find some examples where it is much less than 10.
Yet it makes me wonder if you can get an ice cream sundae today for a mere $2.50. Most ice cream joints I know are getting more than that for a double-dip cone.
And, if there was such a thing, what would a fully loaded Super Jumbo Banana Split cost in 2008?