FREE NEWSLETTER

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.

Our Free Newsletter

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.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
10 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
1 month ago

I enjoyed this article. When me and my three younger siblings were children, my Dad said he did not believe in giving us an allowance, but rather would pay us weekly “wages” which we were expected earn by doing chores. Years later, after reading “The Millionaire Next Door” I would say that I played good “offense” in my youth, but lousy “defense”. I spent it as fast as I made it. I met my future wife when she was a nursing student in the early 70s. I noticed a ledger she kept from her younger junior high and high school years. She had routinely loaned money earned from babysitting during those years to each of her four older brothers, whose being typical teenage boys, expenses exceeded their wages. Every loan was neatly documented. Each brother eventually repaid every cent, with interest! So I learned how to play better “defense” from her.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
1 month ago

Good post Dick. Your experience sounds very familiar. I was not quite the entrepreneur you were, but I did many jobs to earn money growing up in the 50s. I was selling concessions at a minor league ball park at age 10. I mowed lawns, scavenged for soda bottles, delivered newspapers, umpired baseball and softball games and many other things to make money. Like you, I spent it on stuff, often pop and candy or movies.

I remember one job for my grandfather. He needed a coal bin in the basement. He paid me 5 cents per wheelbarrow load of dirt. I used the dirt to fill in the back yard. I did 100 wheelbarrow loads for a whopping $5 which I used for vacation spending money.

David Powell
David Powell
1 month ago

Ha! Sounds familiar. Mine: Delivered newspapers for a bit (kids, these are heavy paper-based things which make your hands turn black when you read them). Worked in an organic grocery before we called them that (stocking shelves or cleaning or cutting and weighing/bagging tons of cheese out of huge blocks or wheels). I pumped gas. I bussed tables in a tasty local Mexican restaurant. I worked the front desk of a hotel in a sketchy part of D.C. Finally, I worked as a proofreader for a newsletter publisher in the Nat’l Press Building back before Word Processors (Wang) or PC/Mac apps like Word or Word Perfect could check spelling, grammar or compliance with the Associated Press Style Guide. All that before starting a nearly 40-year career in software engineering and engineering management. Human capital indeed.

corrupt
corrupt
1 month ago
Reply to  David Powell

Hey Dave, you still in DC? You with BF?

M Plate
M Plate
1 month ago

I was born in the 1960’s. I played with the same toys you did. I loved those balsa-wood planes, the caps, and little green army men. Life (and toys) changed much slower back then.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
1 month ago

What is the brand name and model of your .22 rifle please?

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

No idea and I’m not home so can’t look. I want to say Remington, but not sure. It’s single shot with 5 shot clip.

DrLefty
DrLefty
1 month ago

Yep. I reported, wrote, and sold door-to-door a neighborhood newspaper once a week when I was 7 going on 8. Did that for four months before I got tired of the grind. Also lemonade stands, hot dog stands, and backyard carnivals. Bought bunches of mistletoe for a quarter and resold them door-to-door for 50 cents at Christmas. Sold Girl Scout cookies for years. Started babysitting for money at age 12 and worked at the town library after school while in high school.

I didn’t really save or invest it, either, but I did save up for and buy a guitar with my babysitting money in high school. Also earned my spending money for my first year of college with the library job.

If I could do it over as a parent, I’d make my own kids start working as soon as they were old enough to earn a buck—babysitting, the snack bar at the Little League field, something. I was pretty brainwashed in the 90s-00s that it was more important for them to focus on school and extracurriculars to get into a good college, and we were stable enough financially that we didn’t need to make them work for spending money. I regret that now.

polamalu2009
polamalu2009
1 month ago

So relatable. First “real job” was painting tenements in Rochester New York underage. The owner had a bunch of us kids he used. Handed out paintbrushes and buckets of green paint and said “Paint everything”. So we did. Floors, walls, ceilings, doors and window frames. We didn’t know to sweep and clean the place first so we painted over dead flies, cobwebs and mouse droppings. Later on I figured out he was probably a government contractor charging the state or the feds for skilled union labor and pocketing the difference. I’ve dug ditches and worked on automobile assembly lines. It makes me appreciate everything I have now all the more.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago
Reply to  polamalu2009

Getting from there to here through hard work and overcoming obstacles does tend to make one appreciate what they have and have accomplished.

Free Newsletter

SHARE