After my husband and I were married — 52 years ago — we spent about $15 a week for groceries. The money paid for ham and cheese for his lunches, Monday’s red beans and rice (Blue Runners were 9 cents a can), two chicken dinners, meatloaf (the leftovers supplied the rest of his noon-day fare), and probably some pork chops and beef for stewing, milk, potatoes and bread, eggs and vegetables and the makings for salads.
On Fridays we went — like everybody else in town — to the lakefront for crabs and shrimp and beer, which probably set us back about $10.
I got to thinking about our grocery bill the other day after somebody emailed me some pictures of vintage ads with the prices of things like food, haircuts and clothes in 1956. I’ll save this for a column, I thought, and then realized, heck, I can come up with my own costs of living.
One thing I remember well was the price of gas in 1951, because as soon as we teenagers could drive, we filled our families’ cars up with girlfriends and cruised our small town on summer evenings, looking for boys, whom we rarely actually spotted. When we had emptied the gas tank, we had to refill it, each rider kicking in 25 cents for a gallon. We stopped at drive-ins where carhops brought your nickel Cokes right out to you, and if we went to the movies, it cost us 35 cents to sit in the balcony at the Royal Theatre and another nickel if we wanted a candy bar.
When I went to college two years later in 1953, I got a part-time job on our town’s newspaper and was paid $15 a week — about a dollar an hour. So I could afford it when I sometimes skipped a meal at the “chow hall,” going across the street from the campus for a 95-cent dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, garlic bread, salad and iced tea.
And while I’m back on the subject of food, I’ll tell you that six years later my husband and I celebrated our engagement with a lavish $19 dinner for two at T.Pittari’s restaurant and spent the next day lamenting our extravagance. Almost eight years later, half an avocado filled with lump crabmeat and ringed by lettuce, slices of tomato and the quarters of a hardboiled egg went for $4.75 at the Pontchartrain Hotel Coffee Shop.
Clothes prices I don’t remember much about, except that a girl who lived in our apartment house after I finished college in 1957 paid $18 for a pair of pedal-pushers and my roommates and I were aghast — and admiring. And then about three years later Daddy sent $100 with instructions to “buy some dresses for your mother for her birthday for goodness sake.” She had this red and white cord sleeveless dress that she wore in the mornings for housework and he was tired of seeing it. I bought her four dresses at the Maison Blanche on Airline — $25 a dress. (She loved them, and saved them for choir practice and PTA meetings.) She paid $75 for the short lace dress and crepe slip I wore for my wedding that year.
When I moved to New Orleans in 1958, I had to forego a nice apartment that cost $85 dollars a month, much more than I could afford, settling instead for an efficiency: bath, small kitchen and a living room/bedroom with a Murphy bed that rolled out of a closet. The rent was $45. Meantime, my husband — we had yet to meet — was buying a new Ford Fairlane for $1,800. He and I signed the mortgage for our first house in 1960, paying $16,000 for it with a monthly note of $114.
The obstetrician charged us $250 to deliver our son, and $25 extra for the circumcision. I don’t remember what the hospital stay cost, but like almost everyone else we had no medical insurance. The veterinarian got $5 to treat our ailing dog, and I used to joke that he cost more than our kids: the pediatrician got $4.
I mentioned at the top of the column that my husband did the grocery shopping in 1959, and he’s continued to do so for most of our married life. Of course, I’ve shopped occasionally, but up until about 10 years ago had never gone in to buy just a single loaf of bread. Imagine my surprise when I took out a dollar and that didn’t quite get it.
I felt like George W.H. Bush when, during his presidency, he discovered that grocery stores now have price scanners.
When did that happen?
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.