anne mikolay 2012 120Today, a blast from my past caught my eye: Hostess chocolate cupcakes! While pleased, I was appalled at the price. The same packaged cupcakes purchased for a nickel when I was a little kid cost $1.79 today. That got me thinking of the many things that have changed in the grocery aisles since the 60s.

Back in the day, freshly ground coffee could only be purchased at the register (a giant monstrosity with big buttons and a loud ching-ching sound). The cashier ground the coffee beans in the machine located at the end of the check-out; the aroma was wonderful! Cashiers knew their basic mathematics; correct change was calculated in the brain with the occasional assist from pencil on a paper bag. There were no easily torn or reusable grocery bags; all items were packed in a paper sack, later ingeniously turned inside-out and transformed into school book covers. There were no fresh bakery departments in the supermarket, no donut counters or banks, no place to eat your lunch or purchase postage stamps. A supermarket was strictly for groceries.

A package of two Hostess cupcakes cost a nickel. A dozen eggs sold for 65 cents and a 12 ounce box of cornflakes for 25 cents. A 10 ½ oz can of Campbell's soup cost 11 cents; a one ounce Hershey bar was 5 cents. A gallon of milk set you back 95 cents, a pound of sirloin steak, 85 cents. Dessert, like a box of cake mix and a six-pack of Pepsi, was 25 cents and 59 cents, respectively. 100 aspirin was sold for a dollar. If you didn’t want 100, you could buy a little tin of 12 aspirin for 15 cents. A newspaper was 5 to 7 cents, 25 cents to 50 cents on Sunday. (And Sunday’s paper was chock-full of reading material, including colorful “funnies” kids reproduced on silly putty.)

I can’t say if my kids enjoyed food shopping with me, but I certainly had a good time at the grocery with my dad. We walked to the supermarket; Dad pulled a portable shopping cart (with me inside it!). At the A&P, it was my job to get the pickles. A fresh dill pickle was the only thing to buy, never a pickle in a jar! I used the giant tongs at the supermarket to fish a hefty pickle or two from the barrel and place it in a wax paper bag. Then, after a thorough inspection of the cookie aisle (looking for Nabisco Chocolate Snaps for me and Nabisco Chocolate Chips for my sister), my curiosity was satisfied; the shopping excursion was over, and I walked home with Dad. It was great fun (unpacking the groceries, not so much).

I haven’t ridden in a shopping cart in ages, nor have I paid 5 cents for two cupcakes. I suppose all things are relevant, however. Rationality dictates that the price of groceries is commensurate with income and the cost of ingredients and manufacturing, but paying $1.79 today for something that once was a nickel is somewhat disheartening and reminds me that life isn’t a pickle barrel any longer...if you know what I mean.