Suzanne Tobias

Ledger reveals far more than cost of things

Our family discovered buried treasure recently: a household ledger kept by my husband's grandfather in the 1930s and '40s.

Randy's mom found it while sifting through papers, a 100-page Standard Blank Book yellowed with age. The first line reads "January 1936." Just below that: "cash on hand, $8.21."

What caught my eye first was the handwriting — loopy, uniform, beautiful cursive. John Henry was an elementary school principal and his wife a teacher in Great Bend long before computer keyboards. Their everyday penmanship was wedding-envelope quality, unmatched.

It draws the eye and piques the interest, so I read on:

Rent, $12.50.

One gallon of milk, 20 cents.

Newspaper, 10 cents.

Lights and water bill, $2.35.

Flowers for Mr. Doran's funeral, 15 cents.

"To the Lord's work," $5.

As with most household budgets, the income lines are fewer and farther between, but similarly telling:

Salary for January, $95.

Sold Mrs. Copeland a chicken, 60 cents.

Two dozen eggs, 30 cents.

Helped Bill unload shingles, $1.50.

I asked my mother-in-law if we could keep the book a while for a closer look. On the ride home, I read lines aloud to the kids.

Montgomery Ward (curtains), $2.16.

Corn for chickens, 40 cents.

Hired girl, $1.50.

Marionette ticket, 10 cents.

Kodak film, 36 cents.

Page after page, we marveled at the list and the image that emerged. Hannah and Jack never knew their great-grandfather — he died before Randy and I met — but this ledger drew a picture more detailed than any family story or photograph.

Randy's grandpa bought radish seeds. He used Kreml hair tonic. He shined shoes, fixed flat tires, sold eggs and slaughtered chickens. He gave to his church, to the children's home, to the National Geographic Society.

"Look at this," said Jack, my 10-year-old son. "Haircut and ice cream, 30 cents."

My husband smiled, recalling his grandfather's fondness for ice cream. On special occasions, or even not-so-special ones, you wouldn't have to twist his arm to score a cone, Randy said.

"Haircut and ice cream" is a common line item throughout the ledger. So is "ice cream for last day of school," a tradition we continue today.

Some items hint at the young father's zest for life, how he sometimes wrote "Monkey Ward" for Montgomery Ward and bought fireworks every Fourth of July. Among the gas bills and insurance payments are Christmas presents, Mother's Day flowers, circus tickets and "picture shows."

Quarter of a pig, $3.47.

Woolworth store, 66 cents.

Gasoline, 90 cents.

Junk hauled, 30 cents.

Silver dollar (put away), $1.

This wonderful peek into family history: Priceless.