Check Stubs Tell All

One of the difficulties of old age is remembering how cheap things were when we were young, as well as remembering how young we were when things were cheap. Recently, while trying to diminish the fifty-year accumulation in the attic of our West Tisbury home, I came across a manila envelope full of check stubs from 1949 to 1954. I don’t know why I saved these stubs, but they provide a glimpse of what life cost on Martha’s Vineyard more than half a century ago.

With no credit or debit cards in those days, I paid for everything by check, no matter how small the amount. In 1951, I sent a check to Donaldson’s Garage (now Up Island Automotive) in West Tisbury for $1.00 to pay for gas – how much gas, I didn’t record, but probably at least three or four gallons. And in 1954, I mailed a check in the amount of 45 cents to Bloomingdale’s to pay for the postage on a slipcover I had ordered. And it only cost me a three-cent stamp to mail it.

It was in July 1949 that our first child, a son named Jack, was born. The Island had only five doctors then for the approximately 4,500 year-round residents: Robert Nevin, Ralph Mitchell, Donald Mills, Joseph Frisch, and David Rappaport. They were all very talented physicians. They delivered babies, took out tonsils, cured bronchitis, treated burns, removed appendices, and spoke kindly to the elderly about their arthritic pains. In 1951, I paid Dr. Mitchell $18 for an eye exam and a pair of prescription sunglasses. When something more serious popped up, it was off to Boston to see a specialist.

After Dr. Nevin delivered Jack, he sent us a bill for $75. My week in the hospital must have cost less than that, since in 1953 I spent four days there after a miscarriage, and paid my bill in the amount of $36. At that time, the doctors were charging $3 for an office call. They were also willing to make house calls if you were too sick to get to their office.

We were lucky to have Robert Ganz, an eminent Boston pediatrician with a summer house on the Vineyard, and sometimes he would see a Vineyard patient in his home. When baby Jack was about three months old, I was concerned because his head was still kind of flat on one side, the side he usually slept on. Dr. Ganz examined him, and I remember almost exactly what he said to reassure me: “Don’t worry about it – did you ever see an adult with a flat head?” I gladly paid him his $10 fee.

About eighteen months later, Dr. Nevin delivered Deborah, our first daughter. His price had gone up to $79, but by then we had Blue Cross Blue Shield, and we only had to pay $29. The hospital charged us $95.50 for the room, but I can’t remember how many days I was there. Generally we new mothers had a five- to seven-day rest to recover from childbirth.

Every year I made out a check to the town of West Tisbury for $2 to pay for the privilege of voting. It was called a poll tax and effectively prevented many poor people, especially African Americans and Native Americans, from voting. It was finally outlawed in 1964 during the Johnson administration. I think that is the only expense we had in the first seventeen years of our marriage that we don’t have today, except for the cost of baby sitters. It was easy to take our first baby everywhere we went, but when Deborah was born we started paying 35 cents an hour to turn our babies over to a teenager in town. Our regulars were Linda Magnuson (Hearn) and Alice Churchill (Kross) and their price went up to 50 cents in 1953, which made us reconsider our already sparse entertainment budget.

We used to buy half-gallon bottles of sherry, as that was the cheapest alcohol available. I think one would cost about $2 a bottle then. And cigarettes: My husband, Johnny, gave up a heavy smoking habit about fifty years ago because cigarettes were getting too expensive at $4.14 a carton. Check out today’s price – close to $90 a carton. How can anyone afford to smoke?

In 1948, we rented the West Tisbury parsonage across the road from the Whiting Farm. Our rent was $35 a month for the nine years we lived there. It had a coal furnace, and for around $30 a ton we bought coal from the Crowell Coal Company, located near the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. In the parsonage there was one large register in a very small room off the living room. In the winter the heat was intense in that room – good for drying diapers that had frozen on the clothesline – but very little of it drifted to the upstairs where our children slept. The glasses of water we put on their bedside tables at night were usually frozen by morning.

In the kitchen of the parsonage was a combination wood-and-kerosene cook stove and in the attached woodshed was an icebox – not a fridge, but an icebox that we had to fill with big blocks of ice that we bought from the Vineyard Ice Company. I had an old-fashioned washing machine that had to be rolled over to the kitchen sink and hooked up to the faucet to fill it. When the clothes were washed, I had to put them by hand through a wringer and then hang them outside on my clothesline.

There were no cell phones or portable phones or even private telephone lines in “the good old days.” We were on an eight-party line, which meant we could listen to other people’s not-so-private conversations. The phone bill didn’t amount to much, and our electric bill was usually between $3 and $6 a month.

Before I forget it, I should mention that we were living on $2,500 to $3,000 a year. That should put all those check stubs in perspective.