by Reysha Silverhair
Carrying his coffee-cup, Hoyt ambled silently around my car. He was attempting to appear very casual, but he was inspecting every detail. Then, peering in through the windows, he said finally, "Well, I don't see any fishing gear. Isn't that one reason you came?"
"Sure is," I replied, "it's all in the trunk."
"Ah. In the trunk; right." Then, coming more quickly around to where he could see me clearly, he pointed at me with his cup. "Bet you don't know why they call it that."
I just stared at him, puzzled. "What? The trunk?" I shook my head. "I dunno; that's just what it's called…isn't it?"
It was Hoyt's turn to shake his head. "No reason why you should know, I guess. But I'm a little surprised, you being a writer and playing with words all the time. Seems like something you might want to have in your notebook."
I waited, feeling sure he was going to tell me.
"Well sir, back in the twenties, most cars still looked a lot like the carriages they were adapted from. If you've ever watched old Eliot Ness or gangster movies, you might have noticed the vintage cars they had running around. On lots of them, you could have seen a sort of fold-up framework or rack across the back, right over the rear bumper. When the car was going to be used for a trip, the rack was folded down, like a shelf, and luggage was piled on it. You'd see folks driving down the road with a big stack of suitcases lashed onto this luggage-rack in back.
"Then some bright person got the idea of putting a big locker or trunk on the luggage-rack, making it fast with leather or canvas straps, and just leaving it there. Whenever they wanted to carry stuff, they'd just open up the trunk and pop it in, then close the lid.
"At first, of course, the box could be removed whenever it was in the way or not needed. But the idea got to be so popular that the car makers started attaching metal boxes - or trunks - permanently to the rear of the cars. They were still outside, obviously just a box, but they became a standard fixture.
"I remember, on our old Chevy, there was a beautiful dark green metal and wood trunk fastened onto the back. It had a flat top, so, when drove across the country, we had suitcases piled on top of the trunk, right up to the top of the car and tied down with lots of rope and old leather belts.
"Later, as cars got fancier, the big square box was moved inside the car body, with a lid over it. But it was still just essentially a box or a trunk. So it was just natural to call the trunk a trunk, even if it didn't look like one any more. See?"
Smiling broadly, he put a hand on my shoulder and steered me toward the house. "Now tell me," he said as we crossed the lawn, "why didn't you just drive on through last night? Coulda saved yourself a night's motel bill."
"It would have been pretty late, if I had. And anyway, I'd heard about this great bed and breakfast place just outside of Coeur d'Alene…" I went on to tell him all about the house and the fantastic breakfast I'd been served on the terrace overlooking the lake.
Hoyt listened to my story with a funny little half-smile on his face. At 76, he still considers himself "just a youngster" among our older friends, and I recognized his grin as the signal that a "things were different back then" tale was waiting for me.
Hoyt Sherman Griffith, Jr. was born in 1926 in Philadelphia, the great-grandson of General William T. Sherman's younger brother, Hoyt Sherman. His family was adventurous and curious about everything, and I knew that young Hoyt's parents had transported him back and forth across the continent several times before he entered the seventh grade. Sure enough, my tale of finding a wonderful bed-and-breakfast opened up his memory.
"Y'know," he began, chuckling, "it's amusing to hear people today get so excited about these 'bed and breakfast' places, like they were something new and wonderful. 'Course, in a way I can understand that staying overnight in somebody's home must seem like a great change from all those cookie-cutter, carbon-copy chain motels, but did you ever stop to wonder where traveling people stayed before there was such a thing as a motel?"
I admitted that I had no idea, sure that I was about to learn.
"Well, the first thing young folks find hard to imagine is that, sixty years ago, there were no freeways across most of America. There were a few brand-new four-lane 'parkways' between New York City and Connecticut, but the interstate system as you know it today hadn't even been thought of yet. If you planned to drive your automobile any distance across country, your best bet was to follow the main numbered US Highways. Like following US 30 out of Chicago, west across Iowa and Nebraska, all the way to Astoria, Oregon if you wanted to. Or US 40 across Kansas, Colorado, and up to Salt Lake.
"Now remember, these were mainly still two-way, two-lane roads, at least outside of the major towns. But they were almost always paved and maintained, and already connected nearly all those major towns with the cities; a sensible driver could plan on spending the night in a town of at least some decent size.
"So, when you drove into the town you planned to spend the night in, you started watching for residential areas and then looking for houses with signs out in front, signs that said "Tourist Rooms". These were mostly just ordinary folks who happened to have (or arrange for) a spare bedroom or two. Of course, lots of towns also had at least one hotel, but those were usually filled first by business travelers and were more expensive.
"As you might imagine, the tourist rooms you found could range anywhere from immaculate and inviting rooms in a charming home, to filthy places you couldn't wait to back out of. So you always asked to see the room first, before agreeing to stay, even if it seemed that this was the only place in town. Don't doubt for a minute, though, that the owners looked you over pretty carefully, too. I remember one nasty, rainy night when we'd been held up by some detours and it was fairly late when we pulled up in front of a really nice-looking house advertising rooms for tourists. We must have looked like drowned rats or fugitives from some posse, 'cause the owner took one look at us and said the rooms were full. My parents didn't believe him, since the light was still on over the sign, but we had to spend that night in a regular hotel. As I recall, that hotel had resident roaches.
"In most houses with 'tourist rooms', bed didn't automatically include breakfast, but usually it could easily be negotiated, usually for a little extra price. In the nicer places, the owner would often ask you when you planned to leave in the morning, and show up with a free cup of hot coffee and maybe some donuts as you started out the door.
"If you did a lot of traveling, you met a lot of really nice people by spending the night in their homes. These weren't professional hotel people, just decent, friendly folks doing their best to make it through the Depression. And when your bed did include breakfast, you very often ate breakfast with the owner's family, before they went off to school or work. You got a very different feel for the country that way. You also got the very latest report on road conditions in the direction you were heading. In those days, that was important information."
"I can well imagine," I nodded, not at all sure I really appreciated just how different those driving conditions were.
"Y'know," Hoyt resumed, getting warmed up, "in the 'thirties you still saw some of the old fashioned gasoline pumps. You probably never saw one in action; they were the kind with the big glass jar or tank on the top. The jar was like a huge measuring-cup, holding five gallons, and marked off in tenths of a gallon. There was a vertical pump handle at the base, about three feet long, and the attendant swung this handle back and forth to pump gas up into the glass tank at the top. From there, the gas was hosed down into your car's gas-tank and the markings on the glass told you how much you'd taken. Of course, if you needed more than five gallons, the glass had to be pumped up full again. The guy servicing your car got a fair workout, swinging that pump handle all day.
"But that's another thing: some people did call them gasoline stations, but mostly they were called 'service stations', and that was because you really got service when you drove your car into one. In addition to muscling that pump handle back and forth and working the hose, the attendant cleaned your windshield and checked your oil and water just as part of the routine service that went with selling you gasoline. He'd even check the air pressure in your tires, if you wanted him to. Then, if you didn't already have one, there was a rack of road maps inside the station; you could take one or two of the state you were in as well as road-maps of the adjacent states…all free, courtesy of the oil company."
Hoyt took a sip of his coffee before going on. His gaze slipped off into the middle distance, and the start of another smile signaled the emergence of another memory. "That's another thing you've probably never seen, unless you prowl around antique car shows," he said, looking back at me. "Talking about checking your oil and water reminded me. They've mostly disappeared from your newer cars, but I'm sure you know what a hood ornament is…or was. But do you know what a lot of hood ornaments started out as?"
Again, I admitted ignorance.
"Well, to get the picture, you've got to remember that, in the 'twenties and 'thirties, most cars had their radiators right up front, not hidden away under the hood of the car. And the radiator cap, where you checked the water level and added water if needed, was up on the top of the radiator, staring right at you as you drove. I don't know if any of these were standard equipment…they may have been, on some models…but you could get a radiator cap that looked like a big old-fashioned see-through pocket watch. Instead of telling time, though, this round gizmo held a thermometer, so you could always see the temperature of your radiator water right there in front of you. That was thought to be quite a classy accessory in those days.
"Gradually, car designers started disguising the radiator cap with little sculptures of one sort or another, prettying it up and developing recognizable symbols of the car's manufacturer. Still one of the best known is the Mack Truck's little bulldog. The ornaments were kept on, long after the radiator cap disappeared under the hood. Just thought you'd like to know that…" He grinned at me, and drained his coffee-cup.
Hoyt was pretty clearly 'on a roll', and I didn't have to wait long for him to continue. "I just happened to think of something else," he said, shifting his position so as to face me more directly. "It may not seem like it has anything to do with driving a car across the country, but that's how I first found out about some states making their own money."
"What?" I wasn't expecting his words, and I responded with just the sort of astonishment he must have been looking for.
"Yep," he nodded gravely, but with a distinct twinkle in his hazel eyes. "like I said, making their own money. Well, not exactly five and ten dollar bills or anything like that, but coins with a real value to 'em. Didn't know about that, did you?"
"No, I certainly did not. Are you pulling my leg?" He had done so, once or twice in the past, and I didn't want to have another bogus story dropped on me.
"Well, remember we're talking about the Depression years, now, and even the various states were scratching for every penny they could find. It started in 1929, when Georgia first passed a state sales tax. More than thirty states copied Georgia, and the sales tax became a real nuisance for a lot of people."
"I know some people don't care for a sales tax," I frowned, "but I wouldn't say that it was a 'real nuisance'. And what does that have to do with the states coining money?"
"Oh, it was a nuisance all right when you ended up overpaying the tax a lot of the time. A fairly standard tax rate was three percent. On a seven dollar purchase, that came to an additional twenty-one cents. No problem. But what about something you paid a dime for? In those days, a lot of people bought a lot of things for a dime or fifteen cents. But the State still required the seller to collect the three percent sales tax. On a dime sale, that's three tenths of a cent. The only way you could pay it was by adding a whole penny to the purchase price, and overpaying the tax by seven tenths of a cent. In the 1930's, that was a real nuisance!
"Well, sir, in 1933 Illinois did something about the nuisance; they issued tax tokens worth a fraction of a cent each, mostly half a cent or one tenth of a cent. When you paid for a purchase, you most often got some tax tokens in change. After a while, everyone had a pocketful of the things, and they could pay the sales tax on purchases under thirty-three cents with tokens. Still a bother, but much better than overpaying the tax, sometimes by a considerable margin.
Images of Tax Tokens supplied by Matt Alexander a metal detectorist in Arizona.
"By that time, more than thirty states had enacted a sales tax, and almost half of them - fourteen of them, to be exact -- started producing tax tokens. That meant that there were fourteen different kinds of tokens circulating around. Each state had to make tokens good only within its borders, and so they had to be different from all the others. Mostly, they were made of brass or aluminum; later, some were made from plastic. They were of various shapes and sizes, and many had holes in their centers. But they all had a real monetary value, even if that was only a fraction of a penny.
"And that's where the whole story got complicated. The U.S. Treasury got pretty upset about the states coining their own money. Technically, that's what they were doing, and the Treasury tried to stop them. The states dug in their heels and refused to stop. There was enough squabbling so that, in 1935, President Roosevelt asked Congress to authorize issuance of coins valued at one-half cent and one-tenth cent, expressly for sales tax use. Congress refused, and the Treasury Department went right on hassling the states until the Second World War came along and made the whole thing moot.
"If you never left your home state, and in those days a lot people never did, the token business didn't bother you much. You had your own little pile of tax-money change, and it worked out fairly well. But just imagine what it was like, driving across the country! Some states had tokens, some didn't, and the tokens were only good in the states that issued them. It was rather hard to cross an entire state without buying at least something, even if only gasoline, and so you were bound to accumulate some tokens in every state that used them.
"Trouble was, you couldn't cash them in when you left the state. Not that I cared about that, at the time. Remember, I was just a little shaver, and I thought having a whole box full of my very own money was the greatest thing since the electric refrigerator! I just wish I still had 'em, or even half of them! Do you know what those little tokens are worth today? Four or five dollars each!"
Images of Tax Tokens supplied by Matt Alexander a metal detectorist in Arizona.
Being reminded of what his little tax-token treasure would be worth today somehow shut down the stream of Hoyt's reminiscences, at least for that afternoon. The obvious solution was to go fishing, which is what we did.
NOTE: Reysha Silverhair is a freelance writer from Washington State.
Published October, 2002 by U.S. Legacies.