I know most of my brothers and sisters and older cousins can relate to the activities in this story, because we did them together many times back in the 60’s and early 70’s. Like many things from our past, I’m afraid this experience is all but gone now. I’m talking about that classic kid activity: Going to the corner store for Penny Candy.
This is my recollection of something that went on constantly over 50 years ago…your mileage may vary. Please let me know in the comments what you remember.
First of all, you would be hard pressed to find anything for sale for a penny these days. In fact, a penny even costs more than a penny to make. It costs the U.S. Mint 1.55 cents per penny in 2016, even though all pennies since 1982 only have 2.5 percent copper, the rest being zinc. That means that the U.S. government loses around $50 million a year making a coin that many people just toss in a jar or that is absorbed by their couch.
The poor penny is just not worth the trouble any more. Now, you might get lucky and find a 1943 1c Lincoln penny worth $5,450.00. Wouldn’t that be sweet (see what I did there?). I shudder to think how many collectible, high-value pennies and coins we mindlessly tossed on the counter for our sugar highs.
Wait a minute you say, I saw an item on eBay or Amazon that only costs a penny. Sure you did…was it Amazon Prime, with free shipping? Nope. Not at that price. That one penny item will cost you $5.01 with shipping. Such a deal.
Even when a penny was worth something you still needed to get those pennies into your hot little hand. So, if you wanted to get some penny candy the first thing you needed to do was conjure up some cold hard cash.
We were basically slave labor as children at my parent’s house. We didn’t get an allowance no matter how many chores we did.
Mow the lawn, trim the hedges, rake the leaves, wash the dishes, hoe the garden, clean the garage, weed the flower beds, watch your brothers and sisters… (mom) “You want an allowance? Your allowance is food in your belly and a warm place to sleep, now get back to work!”.
So fund raising was key. And you had to be crafty. You couldn’t just beg from mom because she would ask “why do you need money?” Candy was not the right answer. We weren’t even allowed to go all the way to Ridges Carryout when we were young, even though we walked to school every day to Harry Russell elementary, which was right across the street from Ridges.
So still being stealthy, the first stop was to check all the furniture cushions. Everyone else had this idea as well, so it was not typically a big money maker. If you were really jonesing for a sugar fix, you might check out your brothers and sisters piggy banks, but these were usually well hidden or empty anyway.
Not mentioning any names, but some of the clan may have stooped to pulling a Jesse James robbery by getting into the old metal cash box my parents kept in the back of their closet.
This is where they “hid” (we all knew where it was) things like bonds, insurance forms, souvenir money from Germany, Italy, Vietnam, Korea and so on, along with my 2 dollar silver certificate papaw gave me and so on.
There was also a collection of dad’s blue coin collection folders for nickels, dimes and quarters. These folders were the kind that had a place for a coin for each year, so trying to not get caught you might just take one or two from each folder and other assorted loose change that included buffalo head nickels, wheat pennies, and other old coins.
The problem was that there were 6 kids, so 2 or 3 might have the same idea over time without thinking that others are doing it as well. The next time mom or dad looked into the cash box it might have been robbed blind. The end result was tanned hides for all, as no one ever fessed-up. Snitches may get stitches, but justice always prevails in the underworld of the sibling mafia.
The surest way to get your stake was to actually work for it and search the neighborhood for pop bottles. You could make 2 cents a bottle for returning them to the same place they came from…the stores selling the penny candy. What a racket. It reminds me of the Hudson Bay Company, where they sold the trappers the flour, beans and other trade goods to live on, so they could bring back the furs and exchange them for flour, beans and trade goods to do it all over again.
Of course, every kid in the neighborhood was in on this secret and was doing the same thing…unless they were snotty rich kids whose parents simply gave them money or the poor, deprived, only-child that had no siblings to compete with. Does anyone even say only-child anymore?
Every kid had their own secret methods to track down bottles, kind of like the trapper had his trap-line. You didn’t tell anyone your bottle route and if you ran across another kid on your line there might be a turf war over the bottles.
In those days you didn’t pull out a Glock or AK to fight, you just yelled or threw dirt clods at each other until someone gave in or their mother called them for dinner. When I say called, there were no cell phones, they just yelled at the top of their lungs. When’s the last time you thought of a dirt-clod fight?
I liked walking the creek bed right along Gibbons road as it was on the way to Ridges. People would drink their cold pop on the way back to their house, and finished up, huck them over into the creek so they didn’t have to carry the empty bottle any longer.
Some broke as they hit rocks in the creek bed, but bottles were thick and substantial back then as they were used over and over. Some would miss the rocks, hitting the water, mud or grass.
If I didn’t have enough by the time I got to Ridges I would scour the dumpster or go into the neighborhood side streets, checking trashcans and other places where people leave trash. Often down at the paper mill workers would leave a few empties behind where they had lunch.
Depending on your mood…whether you just wanted a quick fix or a full bag of candy, it might take an hour or just a few minutes. You might already have a start with a bit of birthday money or a quarter from papaw, or maybe you squirreled away some lunch money…who wanted to eat a deviled ham sandwich and succotash anyway?
So with your pocket jangling with coinage or your wagon rattling with bottles, you had to make it to your local penny candy emporium to redeem them.
Back in the days before corporate bean counters created “fun-size”, candy was very cheap…people actually handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. Every neighborhood or small town had a pharmacy, five-and-dime or small neighborhood market on the corner that sold penny candy.
We had a penny candy dealer staked out in every neighborhood, waiting for us like a corner drug pusher to show us their multi-flavored wares to give us that sugar rush we couldn’t live without.
Closest to our house in West Carrollton was Ridges Carryout, at the corner of Gibbons and Elm. Today it is named Lynn’s but it is now a Trophy shop after several name changes over the years.
This was a classic old wooden building that was raised up above the typical flood range of the creek along Gibbons road. The local creeks used to flood several times a summer back then. Sounds like they have fixed that with better engineering.
I see on Google Maps that it has had a face lift with vinyl siding, and missing all the old metal signs (and charm). Probably sold them for a nice profit as they became rare and more valuable.
I actually played on Ridges little league team for a year or two and after each game the team stopped in for some free candy and a coke.
You would walk up the wooden steps to the covered porch, past all the metal signs for Coca-Cola, 7-Up, RC Cola, beer and cigarettes and pull open the screen door, hopping inside before it snapped shut on your butt if you weren’t fast enough.
Once inside, it was like you had entered Willy Wonka’s factory, albeit on a much less grand scale and with a worn wooden floor that squeaked. There you would gaze at the counter full of glass jars full of gumballs, jaw breakers and peppermint sticks.
There were wax root beer bottles, cherry lips and mustaches…
candy cigarettes, Atomic Fireballs, Black Jack Taffy, Dum Dum suckers, Bull’s Eye caramel creams with that weird white creamy stuff in the middle, gum drops, taffy, Necco wafers,
Caramel cubes, root beer barrels, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls, Bottle Caps, Chuckles, various flavors of stick candy and the ever popular candy necklace…you just stretch it around your neck and chew a button off whenever you want, sticky neck be damned!
We had the usual spot figured out. If we wanted to range a little further afield from Ridge’s we might go to Reeds Drug Store or Bob’s Carryout.
Bob was always super friendly but Reed’s had a “newer” more upscale vibe since it was a pharmacy, not like the old-school mom and pop stores with the humming and squeaking fan-belt refrigerators, old reach-in Coke coolers that you could barely see into and shelves crammed so full the aisles felt like canyons.
Find yourself over at Mamaw and Papaw’s house on Miami Chapel in West Dayton? There was The Moraine Market, caddy-corner to Delco Moraine and across from George’s barbershop.
This was one of the first local markets to close down, I don’t remember going here as much as the other places.
Going to Miami Shores to visit Aunt Jean and Uncle Jim? Before they rebuilt the Sellars Rd bridge, our favorite place for candy was the Tradin Post
You had to make a quick dog leg to the right as you came over the Shores bridge on Sellars Rd. The Benson’s house was right around the corner to the left.
When the new bridge came in they expanded the road on both sides and renamed Sellars Rd Main Street.
It was a sad day for everyone when the Tradin Post was torn down to make room for all the construction.
But we are talking candy so we easily switched our allegiances to the store down the road a block, called the Family Market.
Today, after a tear down and rebuild, and a remodel or two, it’s called K&R Supermarket.
In between was also Buck’s, who moved here after Woody’s success chased him away from West Carrollton. I don’t remember going here very much either.
If we were over at Aunt Janice and Uncle Ronnie’s when they lived on Orange Ave? We had to hoof it 3 blocks or so over on South Dixie to Speaks Market.
The hardest part of the whole process, and the most fun, was choosing what candy you wanted in your sack. So many choices. You had to balance quantity and quality for the change in your pocket. You might get several items for a penny, like simple hard candies, or 1 item might cost 2 or 3 cents, like chocolates.
I can only imagine how much patience it took being a clerk waiting for a group of 6-8 year olds to get done picking candy.
But no matter what, you could fill a small paper sack for a quarter.
Decisions made, we would all go running out to play with our cousins and ruin our appetites for supper. If we were at the Tradin’ Post we might grab some cardboard from the back and go up on the levee to sled down the dry grass to the river bank.
I remember sliding down and having a piece of broken glass slice through my cardboard like it was a devilish set-up to kill James Bond…the glass slicing closer and closer to the family jewels until I rolled off. I was careful to clear my slide path after that.
Where ever we were, high on sugar, we would run wild with our many cousins around whatever neighborhood we were in, playing tag, red rover or 4 square, chasing firebugs, climbing trees or playing hide and seek well after the street lights came on.
As the penny’s purchasing power was reduced to nothing, a lot of the mom-and-pop stores also disappeared as they were run out of business by the big chain grocery stores like Kroger super stores, Cub’s and Mega this and that. Penny candy just seemed to fade away, tucked away in our dusty memory banks as we grew older.
In researching this story, I do see that there are candy companies selling bulk bags of old-fashioned taffies, wax-coated root beer bottles, Smarties and Dum Dum suckers. Can you buy any of this retro candy for a penny? Nope. Even if you buy in bulk you need to bust out the nickels, dimes and quarters for each piece. Plus shipping.
But if you ask me, the most important thing missing today is the experience of running into that corner store a sweaty mess with grass stained bare feet, with a handful of pennies, looking at all the incredible choices and picking exactly what your pleasure was for that exact moment in time.
As you recited each item you wanted with meticulous care and laid that sweaty money on the counter for the clerk to count out, you felt like a million bucks, all for a few pennies.