25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
The Value of a Penny, Nickle, Dime & Quarter
My good friend, Mr. Emory King, writes in the Belize Times a column called “Once Upon A Time” and he mostly goes into stories of Colonial times with valuable history on Belize and our mother country, England. Last week, however, he had some thoughts about old Belize City and recalled the times when little boys were willing to put their hands into the stinking drain to pull out a one cent piece. Oh yes, I can recall how far we would go for a penny, a dime, a nickel and a quarter.
If one happened to be fighting over a penny, one would scratch someone’s face because with a penny you could get a handful of roasted pepitoes (roasted pumpkin seeds also called macobi seeds in Creole). Also you could get one or two candies, or a large chewing gum of the cheaper kind. For a one-cent piece one would be willing to say a lie like, “I didn’t take it”.
For a nickel or a five-cent piece, you would put up a big fight and not mind tearing up someone’s clothes because with that you could get a lot. In fact, five cents was an average amount for pocket money, and you would be able to get some chewing gum, pepitoes, and raspado (snow cones) that we get for a dollar today. P.K chewing gum and Arrow mint sold at two for five cents, and boys gave them to their girlfriends when they dated. For mom, with five cents she could purchase a pound of sugar, flour or even rice. If some grown up wanted to have fun watching two little kids fight, he would offer a nickel and the boys would quickly put up their fists to contest that magnificent prize.
Now a dime was a lot of money. For a dime, one would even risk getting a good lashing from dad. Say for example someone would ask you to go work the entire afternoon helping him with his fish trap. One would go for ten cents even though perhaps dad would award a lashing for taking the entire afternoon when he wanted you for a similar task. An exercise book cost ten cents. Bradley’s lemonade cost ten cents and note that all flavors were still called lemonade. A can of potted meat was ten cents, and so was a can of condensed milk. A nice juicy chocolate bar with nuts was also ten cents, so you would go far to earn that. If you were at the end of the pier and dropped a dime in the sea on a Sunday evening, you would remove your clothing and jump into the sea to retrieve your dime. No way would you lose that big amount of money.
And now for a shilling or quarter (25 cents)! For a shilling one would probably bet his life. You had to work very hard for a quarter, you see. If you went all day long fishing with your uncle, casting nets, gutting and cleaning fish, and finally salting or corning them, you would get paid one shilling. Yes, that was for the entire day’s job. For a shilling one would jump into a well and give it a thorough cleaning, digging out some sand, casting out some sticks, stones and bottles, and at times cleaning it of crabs that had fallen and died in the well. Going into a well was not an easy job and the adults usually used children to clean wells for a quarter. On the other hand, a very easy way to earn a shilling was to ring the bell as a newly baptized child was coming out of church. That was considered an honorable thing, so the “padrino” or Godparent had the obligation of paying one shilling. You can imagine the fight boys had to win that privilege, because a shilling was worth a whole week’s pocket money. A boy with a shilling in his pocket had many friends for the entire week. And if the girls knew you had a shilling at your disposal, they probably would be winking an eye too.
Today, even with twenty five dollars in your pocket, a girl would think nothing of you. At least you could not impress a girl with that for if you want to take her out to a restaurant you would need at least fifty. Trust me, when driving along the street and I see a shilling, I still stop and pick it up because it is an old habit. They also say it brings good luck. But twenty five years ago, it was a fortune.