I found a 1946 nickel the other day and immediately began wondering about its travels lo these 68 years.
It’s not the oldest coin I’ve ever discovered in change but there was something about the timing that got me thinking about history. When the coin was minted, my mom was 2 — she will celebrate her 70th birthday Monday. It’s overwhelming to see that revelation in print.
Anyway, when that nickel was first making the rounds, everything in America was cheap compared to today’s prices. The average house cost slightly more than $12,000 and you could fetch a new car for less than $1,200.
Of course, the average annual wage was only about $2,068. Like everything else, it’s all relative.
Truman was president and “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in 1946. England was still trying to recover from World War II and what would be the CIA was established.
“How was that nickel spent?” I wondered. Did it go with two quarters to buy a movie ticket, get matched with 16 cents for a gallon of gas or with another nickel to pay for a loaf of bread? Did it spend much time in the sweaty pocket of a newsboy? Was it carried carefully in a needlepoint change purse of a housewife?
I gripped it tightly in my hands and tried to will memories from it but nothing came. I like the idea of inanimate objects carrying their history around with them like the vague memories of an old man but I have no connection to a year decades before I was born.
Give me a coin minted after 1970 and I can totally relate to how it might have passed from one American to another. I earned allowance and baby-sitting money and became a consumer in my own right before I was old enough to drive. My brother and I rode our bikes to the corner store in Overland, Mo., and strode right in to the back of the meat counter where we could still buy a bottle of Coke from a machine for a nickel. I can still see the sawdust on the floor and smell the freshly-butchered cuts of beef and pork.
We walked a few doors down to the pharmacy where I bought my first Rally bar, oh sweet deliciousness. Do they still make those? I don’t remember seeing any after we moved to Georgia.
Pocket change was a big deal back then. If we saw a penny on the ground, we picked it up whether or not it was on tails. When we moved to Macon, there was still a neighborhood store that carried penny candy. Rows of brightly-colored wrapped sugary goodness sat inside a glass display case trimmed in highly-polished wood.
The clerk stood patiently while we kids clutched our change in grubby little fists and debated the wonders of waxed soda bottles over a candy necklace. How could we get the most out of the change we had because Lord knows it could be a while before we scraped together enough to make another trip to the store?
Everyone knows a nickel doesn’t buy much, if anything, these days. A nickel has to go with a whole lot of other coins to even come close to boasting buying power. Still, that 1946 nickel has survived quite the journey to end up in my change pile and for that reason alone, it deserves recognition.
I can’t fathom that the shiny 2013 penny I found in the same pile will enjoy a history to equal that of the 68-year-old nickel. Of course, not many of us will be around in 2081 to wonder about it anyway.