The Price Was Right — Even if the Wages Weren’t

By Joe Darby

One of my mother’s favorite stories was, when she was a little girl in New Orleans, her mother, my Mawmaw, would send her to the neighborhood corner grocery to buy “half a nickel worth of rice and half a nickel worth of red beans” and that food would feed her family of six.

I would never fail to be amazed by the story, that a medium sized family could dine on red beans and rice for a nickel. Now I must point out, that would have been a very long time ago. Momma was born in 1909, so if she were, say 10 when she was sent to the store, we’re talking about 100 years ago.

But time, as they say, marches on, and I have my own stories of unbelievable prices to relate. I get a kick out of telling these anecdotes to younger members of my family, who are just as amazed as I was when Momma told me about the half a nickel of rice, etc.

Okay, here are some instances of what a few dollars would pay for when I was a young man. When I started working for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1965, I rented a quite nice little apartment in the French Quarter, with a balcony and small living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. My rent was $85 a month. Later, I became room mates with a colleague from the TP who lived on Esplanade Avenue, on the edge of the Quarter. We had two bedrooms, a balcony overlooking Esplanade and the use of a swimming pool in a courtyard. Our rent there, which we split, was an amazing $150 a month.

When my roomie got married and moved out, I had to move too because there was no way I could afford $150 a month on my own! So I got a very nice two-story apartment on Dauphine Street, with courtyard, gas log fireplace, kitchen and living room downstairs and bedroom upstairs for $115. It was a bit of a stretch for me, but I could pay it.

What about my food bills, you may well ask. Well, there was a place called the Buck Forty-Nine Steak House, where you could get, believe it or not, a nice steak for $1.49. Here’s one even better than that. I remember taking a date to Brennan’s Restaurant and my bill came to $12 and something. Over the years I questioned that memory. Could that have been true.

Then, a few years ago, I saw a museum exhibit in New Orleans that featured menus from years ago and, sure enough, they had one from Brennan’s from the 1960s and the entrée prices were $3 and $4. You probably couldn’t even get an appetizer at Brennan’s now for $12, the total of my whole bill.

My first new car, as opposed to used cars, was a 1968, bright red Fiat 850 sports car. It was a little thing, to be sure, but it looked terrific. I paid about $1,800 for it, before taxes. It had an eight-gallon gasoline tank and I could fill up my car for about $2.50. Because gas was about 30 cents a gallon! And, the little Fiat got about 30 miles a gallon, too.

Even into the 1970s, prices were amazing, as compared to today. In 1971, my first wife and I went to London and Paris, for about 10 days, with the air fare AND hotels coming to about $400 or $500 a person. And the hotels were nice, particularly the one in Paris, which afforded us a great view of the Arc de Triomphe from our balcony.

We built a nice three-bedroom house on the West Bank in 1973 for $35,000. My wife’s parents had given us the lot to build on. But inflation was starting to take off then. Our builder told us that costs of supplies were going up so fast that from the time of signing our contract to completion of the house, he barely broke even.

The real beginning of the price rises occurred with the OPEC oil embargo that same year, 1973. Gas shot up from about 35 cents a gallon to 80 something cents a gallon and we were stunned.

By the late 1970s, the US was experiencing double digit inflation plus a dragging economy, under President Jimmy Carter. Wages were rising, but so were prices.

And let me say a final word about wages. While these prices seem simply wonderful, you must remember that our salaries in those days were, well, pretty small. My starting wage at The Times-Picayune was $2.50 an hour! Yep, $100 a week. And that was for a professional position for which I’d studied four years at LSU. I think the minimum wage at that time was $1 an hour, or $40 a week.

So it all balanced out. But I like to think on how we could live today, with modern salaries (or pension plus Social Security in my case) if we had 1960s prices. But, it’s silly to ponder such a thing, because that’s not the way economics works, is it? But, still…

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