Volume 12, Issue 43 ~ October 21-27, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton
In Memory of Cash Money

Pretty isn't it? We don't need Earl Sherman any more.
-Mildred Burton about 1936

I recall that day vividly as mother, with her kids gathered around her, looked to the other side of the kitchen to admire our new acquisition. She beamed.

The object of her admiration was big and glistening white, though certainly not big by today's standards. That General Electric refrigerator would probably fit inside the cooling compartments of most refrigerators of today, but it looked awesome to the Burton tribe. And it was ours.

I recalled that occasion the other day when I noted in the Wall Street Journal that of late, Americans spend more via credit cards than they do cash. How did I make that association?

We Didn't Bank on Much
That GE arrived at our New England farmhouse in the midst of the Great Depression. Back then - maybe many readers won't believe this - greenbacks and coins ruled. There were no credit cards; merchants reluctantly opened charge accounts; as for checks, the only one I had ever gotten a close look at was written by Mr. Weagle, who dealt in chickens, and had just bought some from Grandma.

I guess Grandma wasn't too familiar with checks either, because she eyed it suspiciously. But it went into her apron pocket after he assured her it was “good as cash.” Back then, just about everybody dealt in greenbacks and coins. When Grandpa Burton returned home from the city after selling fruits and vegetables to markets, he had a few bills in his pockets.

What good were checks? They meant one would have to go to the bank and trade them for cash. Banks still in business were few and far between during the Depression. Who needed a bank anyhow? What money that came into the house went into a big tin box that went into the big rolltop desk in the living room. Tim the big collie doubled as security guard when not driving cows back to the barn.

Come to think of it, bank was sort of a dirty word in those days. Banks were folding; rife were stories of country people who lost their savings when their bank went under. Tim was a better guardian of the Burton hoard.

Most New England country folks dealt with banks only when mortgage payments were due. Those who had electricity and phones had other bills to pay. They put a greenback or two in an envelope (or purchased a money order) and mailed it to the utility company. The envelope was adorned with a three-cent stamp; incidentally, if an envelope contained a letter, not greenbacks, it was customary to send it for two cents.

Eligible for the two-cent rate was an envelope with the flap not stuck but folded back and tucked inside. It got where intended just as fast as first class mail, and a penny was saved. A sign of success was when a Christmas card arrived, the gooey flap licked and glued to the envelope. The sender had to be rich - or a show-off.

Few if anyone hesitated to go the postcard route to save still another penny. Letters were for those who had long messages, or real personal ones. Aunt MiMi and Uncle Larry were courting from a distance at the time, and they saved via the postcard route after devising a code for writing to each other.

Times were tough; pennies counted. But country people made out. It was back in those days that the refrigerator arrived.

Cash and Carry
Today, we go to Sears, slip a credit card through a slot, punch in a code and depart with a fridge double or more in price than what a new 1930s' family car cost in those days. We think nothing of it - until we start paying up.

Burtons wanted no part of payments. Like most folks at the time, we put the horse before the cart. Merchandise brought home had already been paid for.

Our money was saved before it was spent. Refrigerators started at about $60, so mother waited years for hers.

As more Burton kids came on the scene, the old ice box had become more annoying to Mother. Ice boxes are antiques today. If you get a chance, look inside one and you'll see there's not much storage space; most of the bulk is insulation and the compartment for the ice.

In summer when big blocks of ice were needed most, it melted faster. In making his rounds, Earl Sherman wasn't too dependable. He had to sell his ice from his old Ford truck. Not everyone could afford ice, and the longer it took to sell, the more that melted, cutting - if not eliminating - his profit margin. The coarse canvas that covered the ice wasn't much insulation, so I guess some days (delivery twice a week), Earl just said to hell with it.

A few folks who had access to sawdust via friendship with the owner of a sawmill - of which there were more than a few - sawed thick blocks of ice from a nearby pond in winter months and stowed it amidst the grains of wood. For the lucky ones, the supply would last until new ice came on the ponds the next winter.

When we didn't get ice in the hot months, perishables were put in a burlap bag tied to a rope that was lowered into the well, the coolest nook around. In cool weather, it went on the porch. Both were a hassle, and that's why the arrival of the refrigerator was such a big deal.

Even a new toaster was cause for celebration; it could take a year of penny pinching to buy one. Little things like a cookie jar took months of ‘home banking.'

Know what? The saving, the anticipation, the arrival of the goods brought about an experience lacking to a great degree in today's society. Pride of ownership. The sacrifices made for the acquisition - and the waiting until it could be paid for - you might say bonded owner and item. That old refrigerator was still running and appreciated when I joined the Navy nearly a decade later and times were a bit better.

Slaves of Convenience
o now we have credit cards, big time. These plastics now account for 53 percent of store purchases; cash and checks make up the remaining 47 percent. The bywords are buy now, why wait. We spend more impulsively because greenbacks aren't coming out of our pocket at the moment of purchase. The banks and the merchants have a good thing going.

I'll admit I'm amongst the victims of credit buying, though quite conservatively. When buying with a card for convenience, I try to force myself to think the money is coming straight from the hip pocket. So the only real concern I have with them is when hurried in an express line at the market holding only a quart of skim milk, and someone ahead of me with a few items stalls the procession buying via plastic.

Not infrequently, the card doesn't read properly, the cashier calls a supervisor, together they fuss around - and I realize I should have gone the regular-line route. If I make an attempt to do that, soon as I leave that line for another, the card goes through and I'm starting all over again in another line.

Plastic: I prefer it only in the bodies of fishing plugs. Enough said …

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