I’ve told of finding real gold in Grandpa’s shop safe as a kid and some small changes in U.S. currency observed within my lifetime. In the late 1950’s, barely old enough to be aware of the real workings of money, I did notice HOW a lot of transactions were accomplished.
Ours was in a fairly remote and relatively poor farm and ranch area of southwest Texas, about an hour from the border with Mexico. There are small towns scattered at intervals, some started as small forts protecting against Mexican and Indian raiders. San Antonio and the Alamo are not far away. Realistically, it was a generation behind the rest of the then-modern world… making the juxtaposition all the more interesting in retrospect.
A lot of business was finalized by a farmer pulling out a fat leather wallet from a center chest pocket of his denim overalls and extracting payment from among layers of paper receipts (farmers are compulsive pack rats) and dollar bills.
Or the ladies reached into a clasp-clad purse held across their arm on a strap.
HOWEVER, if the amounts were small, BOTH men and women would be as likely to pull out a small leather change purse and fish through a jangle of coins to arrive at the amount to the penny. Exact change.
Coins were big money to kids… and many adults!
It is worth noting that a single penny could buy you something back in the day. There was an entire category of goodies called “penny candy”, and sometimes it was 2 for 1 cent. A friendly merchant might even toss in an extra if you were lucky! Bubble gum was popular.
One time, Grandpa took payment for a piece of farming equipment he sold in his tractor repair shop. My dad was tasked with taking the short stack of one-hundred dollar bills to the bank, which meant a trip down the highway. I remember he was nervous as it was a very large sum of money. (I just looked it up… each bill would be worth about $830 today.) You didn’t see many such large bills back then.
In the closest small town, there was one grocery/general store and most local farmers shopped there for basics. Anything else required a round-trip down the highway, a trek already long enough for farmers who did not live in the tiny town itself. It was called “The Trading Company” and you could buy produce, meat, canned goods, overalls, gloves, shovels, kerosene lanterns, kerosene … you get the idea.
Many people did not pay cash. Instead, purchases were written in a receipt booklet that the customer signed. The account was due on the first of the month. When you went in to pay, the clerk would find your booklet in the stack behind the counter — the family name was written on the top edge— and tally up the pages. After payment, those pages would be torn out and thrown away.
Many orders, especially from folks on nearby farms, would be placed by phone early in the day for pickup later. Everything would be in boxes or bags, ready to go. Call-ahead grocery ordering is nothing new.
Many floors of old stores were long, dark wood planks. Cleaning them involved sprinkling out a light layer of oil-treated sawdust from a bucket and then using a push-broom to collect it back up. It worked, picking up dirt and reducing dust, but every department store had a common oily smell when you walked in. They were pretty much fire traps, but that’s another story.
The local Trading Company also ran a Certified Truck Scale, a platform on the side of the old building where a truck could drive on and be weighed, usually both before and after dumping or picking up a load at the grain co-op around the corner. An official stamped receipt was issued.
The building had a galvanized tin awning and long, home-made (but well-built) benches out front. There was often someone just sitting outside, chewing tobacco and talking. The Post Office was next door, so this was the spot to meet people.
In agricultural areas, buyer and seller co-operatives were a common way for small farmers to engage in business outside their area, pooling their purchasing power as well as aggregating their ability to deliver larger quantities of farm commodities to bigger, distant markets. To this day, co-ops are efficient, localized, self-engaged micro-economies… usually owned and run by their members.
Co-op members also used these non-profit organizations sort of like banks with grain deposits, for example, “stored” in silos during harvest season and “used” (withdrawn) at other times throughout the year. Excess production was also aggregated and sold in bulk to larger city markets. The co-op was probably the “biggest business” in town.
The co-op grain operation was very busy at certain times of the year. Trucks lined up to be weighed and dumped their loads. A grain elevator augered seed to the top of tall silos sometimes filled to the brim. The trucks would often be full of corn or grain sorghum that were fun to play on, but could also be dangerous as you sank and swam in the quicksand-like mass. And don’t even think about getting trapped inside one of the silos.
Trading goods or services was a big part of the area economy and a diverse enough topic to deserve separate exploration. Some day…
Suffice it to say that many transactions did not involve the transfer of money but, perhaps substantial, other goods and/or services.
In today’s world, this sounds very strange. Or naive.
The nearest bank was in a slightly larger town, the county seat, a dozen miles down the highway. Our little farming community did not have a bank, nor did many other small towns in the area, but most did business with that one bank.
So, almost every business in the region would have “counter checks” near the cash register… a pad sitting on the counter, which was usually glass and held candy treats or cigars. These were like regular checking account-type checks on a pad that you are familiar with… except were NOT pre-imprinted with customer information. The ultimate “blank checks”.
A customer would make a purchase and, if they left their check-book at home, could just use a blank counter check, write in the info, sign it and… almost always… the merchant would accept it. There was a lot of trust.
Most merchants knew their customers — probably even related to a third of them — but didn’t know everybody, of course. Misplaced trust, in the form of “bad checks (returned for insufficient funds in the account)”, would be put under the front counter glass for everyone to see. Shame on the local who is recognized for writing a bad check.
Someday, I’m going to write about community shaming and its legitimate place in civilized society. Not today.
Ha, ha, just kidding!
I never saw anyone use credit cards when I was a kid. See Store Accounts.
Shaking, by Hand or Voice
Regardless of the actual form of payment, most “deals” were finalized by an agreement. While I did see some formal paperwork done for some transactions, most I observed were sealed by word or touch.
Upon agreement, the parties shook hands. Sometimes ceremoniously, more often just as a matter of course… maybe combined with the obligatory “goodbye” handshake. Almost in passing, except it carried the mutual significance of promised performance.
This was true in business and private life. It was not an organization you made an agreement with, it was a person. Somehow, it enhanced the integrity of the transaction… and everyone knew it.
In the emerging “modern business world”, this same tradition carried over to telephone agreements.
Businesses could establish relationships via copper wire and a unique phone number that allowed them to place orders in a more timely manner than before, ship products all the quicker, and vendors would often provide product or services upon the mere promise of future payment (based upon someone’s “word”). The telephone multiplied the original purchasing power of “word of mouth”.
It should be noted that farm people, even back in the day, were not fools and judgment calls were made. Yet folks were generally trusting of strangers until that trust was broken. Unlike today where it has mostly reversed, the default back then seemed to be to accept a person’s word. Honesty was assumed.
Of my complaints about the modern world, I place lack of trust between people near the top of the list. It’s easy to understand if you acknowledge that many folks today don’t even know all their nextdoor neighbors (or know them ONLY online!?!).
Trust has been eroding for so long, it is sometimes hard to find in the wild any more. A sad indicator since trust is simply based on the two-way street of “respect”.