Pinching pennies became a family obsession

February 05, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

I'M AMUSED when I hear about friends who made $22,000 in 10 days playing the stock market. I grew up in the wake of a different type of stock market mentality -- the Depression mentality.

The Depression mentality, as I experienced it, mingled freely with basic Baltimore thrift. This is a city where every dollar is worth 100 pennies and you'd better not waste one of them. Stories of the bank closures of the 1930s abounded when I was a child.

It's as true today as it was in 1950s Baltimore when I first became aware of money and its powers. As today, Baltimore is a place where there are few fat salaries. Yet, we lived well, by working productively. And wasting nothing.

Our neighbors often thought we were more than a bit unusual because of some of the rigorous financial practices we followed.

I'm sure some of our neighbors thought us the least bit odd because we saved all the fat from the dinner table. Twice a year, my grandmother and her sister boiled that glop down, added lye, and made scrubbing soap. And only grudgingly did they trade with Procter & Gamble.

They got value for their grocery bill. I was amazed at how they could produce a second beef stew supper, quite delicious, out of a rib roast. If they needed to stretch that stew, great Aunt Cora took a mound of flour and in 20 minutes there was a stack of flaky biscuits. She formed them with a tea cup.

Every scrap of paper got used. I see my mother going through the wastepaper baskets and pulling out pieces of paper that hadn't been fully used. Even little squares were dutifully stockpiled and put in the kitchen dresser. These were used as milk notes -- written orders for what the milkman was to drop off on his rounds.

They waged economic war with Baltimore Gas & Electric. If you left a room, the light went out. It wasn't unusual to be trapped in Stygian darkness in the old Guilford Avenue home's dark halls when someone pushed the "off" button in the middle of the night.

They were not averse to buying clothes new, but only on sale, deeply reduced, long after Christmas. Their Depression mentality hit new heights when they secured a great buy on a Hutzler Brothers item whose price tag had been crossed out in red pen three or four times, each price going downward. They took as much pleasure in this as stock market gamblers do today when the Nasdaq breaks through another financial barrier.

There was an underlying economic principle in the way they lived. There were actually four separate financial entities living under the same roof -- my parents, grandparents, a great aunt and my mother's brother, an unmarried uncle -- each of whom had incomes. Added to this, the mortgage was paid off in 1921.

And yet, the $96 that one of them lost when the Baltimore Trust Company folded in the collapse following the 1929 Crash was a scandal, a personal affront, an economic tragedy. So too with the old Commonwealth Bank, at Madison and Howard streets. Many a time after dinner, my elders sat around the table and told the tale how the fatcats in town were tipped off that the economic disaster of the 1930s was coming and successfully withdrew their funds before the cash ran dry.

As a result, there was always a good bit of cash around the house. My grandmother Lily Rose, who could get 125 cents out of a dollar, always stashed an easy $500 under her mattress. She'd been stiffed in the Depression, and she wasn't about to let it happen again.

So, one summer at the beach, she mentioned to the landlady about a lumpy mattress. We were good clients, and before we knew it, the delivery men removed the old bedding and had a new mattress in place. When my grandmother realized this, her face turned red with anguish. She dashed into her bedroom, flipped the new mattress and discovered, to her relief, the stash sat undisturbed.

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