The 'Bread Standard' Provides Economic Gauge
Once when I was a lad of eight, my mother sent me down the street to Ridenour’s Grocery with a quarter in hand to buy a loaf of bread. I returned with a loaf of Sunbeam bread and eight cents. Andy Ridenour was our closest neighborhood grocer. Allman Brothers Grocery was slightly farther away but still within walking distance. Sunbeam bread was baked daily here in Clarksburg.
Fresh bread was delivered within a few hours after the bread came out of the oven. Sunbeam bread is now baked out of state but I use it for comparison because, except for preservatives, the loaf hasn’t changed much in 46 years. Even the wrapper is nearly identical. Today’s fresh bread is comparable to day-old bread in 1957.
Neighborhood grocers are long gone from the landscape and the closest market is Kroger’s in the west end of town, one mile from my parents’ house. Even in 1957, I wasn’t allowed to take my bike to the west end where the A&P supermarket was then located.
Based on these few facts, I have developed a bread standard to value our money. Even if you challenge the cost of driving to Kroger’s at 73¢ per loaf as being superfluous, the cost of bread has still risen twenty-fold which is about twice the rate at which WV median household income has increased during the same period. Your family needs to earn in the mid 5-figures this year just to stay even on day-old bread. And to stay even, you would have had to have lost something along the way—your value system.
Day-old bread was discounted by half because homemakers wouldn’t buy it for anything other than making stuffing. Families demanded fresh bread despite the steep discount. And 8¢ was not a trifling amount in 1957; you could mail 2 letters and 2 postcards for that sum.
After food stamps were introduced in 1961, the custom of discounting day-old bread faded. This is just a coincidence because, as we all know, government spending makes everything better. But a point does need made for our comparison of costs. You buy your bread at the register but you buy other peoples bread through the payroll deduction plan. Thus, the next time you buy bread, remember that you’ll be a few slices short of a 1957 loaf as well as a day late in eating it.
You can argue all you want that you are better off than folks were 46 years ago. You aren’t. But to walk the point home, let’s re-visit Mr. Ridenour’s store.
In 1957, you would have bought chicken from Andy at the butcher’s meat cooler. It was fresh, not pre-packed, and it certainly wasn’t frozen or laced with preservatives. I always remember how homemakers demanded to see if there was any blood in a bone joint. If there was so much as a speck of blood, then the chicken was refused. Nobody would buy chicken with any amount of taint.
Years later, when I bought packaged chicken at a supermarket, I noticed that the bird was swimming in blood. I asked a clerk in the meat department if there would be any problems with the poultry. I will never forget his answer: No, sir! Our cashiers double-bag chicken packs so they won’t leak on your groceries!
And he said it with so much pride that I dared not interrogate him further!
In 1957, we had two neighborhood groceries nearby and the A&P supermarket was less than a mile from home. There was competition. There was variety. There was service with a smile from people we knew. Home delivery was available. And both Ridenour’s and Allman Brothers let creditworthy customers run a tab.
Compare bread. Compare stamps—both food and postal. Compare chicken. Compare Ozzie Nelson to Ozzie Osbourne. The results are all the same—devaluation, big time.
David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV
"The Bread Standard" is part 2 of a continuing series based on The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek (1944). This article originally appeared in the September 12, 2003 edition of the West Virginia State Journal.
Copyright 1990-2005 David G. Allen