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Child Labor

Richard Quinn

WHEN I WAS A KID growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, I didn’t get an allowance. In my family, we had to earn our spending money—and earn we did. My childhood included working at all kinds of jobs, some of which kids today wouldn’t even recognize. Shoveling coal and hauling ashes? Please.

My recollection of my childhood jobs goes like this:

  1. At age eight or so, I operated a lemonade stand in front of our apartment building. That was a bust. Nobody wanted to pay for quality so we switched to Kool-Aid. These were the days before Starbucks.
  2. We branched out to collecting soda bottles for the two- or five-cent refunds. Garbage cans in the local park were the jackpot.
  3. Between ages 10 and 12, we tried an assortment of entrepreneurial ventures. We put on backyard carnivals and plays, and charged other kids and parents a dime. Then we gave them the pleasure of throwing a wet sponge at us. We made potholders and sold them—with a bit of coercion—mostly to relatives. My sister and I collected shoes to shine from the 24 families in our building, and then didn’t remember where we got which pair.
  4. We sold, with my sister taking the lead ringing doorbells, peanut brittle—cases of it—for the Boy Scouts. While this was technically charity, our high sales won us a portable radio, so I count it as income.
  5. In my teens, I did the usual—at least back then—of raking and burning leaves, as well as shoveling snow. In addition, I have a unique work experience. I shoveled coal into the apartment building furnace and took out the ashes. I also collected the garbage from each apartment using a dumbwaiter that I pulled up four stories. I can still feel the splinters and rope burns.
  6. My future brother-in-law and I raised tropical fish, intending to sell the fry—the young fish—but the cannibalistic nature of fish thwarted our efforts.
  7. I sold greeting cards door-to-door, working toward a .22 rifle as a prize. They mailed it to a 13-year-old. Imagine that.
  8. In high school, I had two real jobs. I worked in a pet store for $5 a week, plus the occasional free tropical fish. I also worked at the city library running the mimeograph machine at 75 cents an hour. My schedule was pretty full after school, on Saturdays and during summers—but so were my pockets.

With all this cash coming in, how did I spend it? I’d like to say I opened a brokerage account and started on the road to retirement, but would you believe me? Here’s the truth: I splurged on needless wonderful things.

As best as I can recall, my earnings were spent on: slices of pizza for 15 cents. Ice cream cones for a dime. Hundreds of little green plastic soldiers. Yo-yos, caps and balsa-wood airplanes that lasted three flights. Pea shooters. Lots of plastic models of cars, planes and ships. The occasional movie and, of course, tropical fish equipment.

Today, some of that stuff costs a small fortune on eBay. Plastic models start at around $50 and go into the hundreds of dollars.

I did save some money, though, for our rare vacations and for family presents. My prized possession for many years was a Mr. Peanut pastel blue plastic bank bought on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It cost me a buck and a quarter, as I recall, and today goes for $15 and up on eBay.

I felt satisfaction spending the money that I’d earned through work. On the other hand, I may have been scarred for life. If I’m not earning something for my efforts, I feel lazy, even a mini-failure.

I could turn off the ads on my blog, for example. Instead, I take satisfaction in earning a few dollars each month. June 2022 was a near-record. I earned $11.70. The month before it was $7.68 and, in April, a mere $4.36.

Sometimes, I wish I’d gotten an allowance.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.net. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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