Signs of Wealth

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jan 10, 1948 

Signs of Wealth 

“Why did you think he was well off?” a witness was asked in court the other day, “Well,” replied the witness, “he’s the only man I know who can afford to eat brazil nuts.”

This, as a standard of wealth, was new to me. Fifty years ago the common signs of wealth were a fur-lined coat, a cigar and a diamond ring, and no millionaire from South Africa was complete without them. Yet when you come to think of it there is no more reason why cigars and diamond rings should be symbols of wealth than for brazil nuts to be so when they have the same scarcity value.

If diamonds were as common as brazil nuts in a normal year they would soon lose their value and only poor people would wear them as a rule. In the same way, if good cigars were as common or as cheap as pre-war walnuts, no one, seeing a man smoking a cigar, would rush to the conclusion that he must be paying surtax—or, perhaps, I should say, that he ought to be paying surtax but has avoided doing so.

There was a time when it was a sign of riches to drink tea. When tea first reached England in the seventeenth century it cost from £6 to £10 a pound. “In respect of its scarceness and dearness,” wrote a tea-dealer of the time, “it hath been only used as a regalia in high treatments and entertainments, and presents made thereof to princes and grandees.”

In 1664, according to the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “the East India Company presented the king with 2 lb. and 2 oz. of ‘thea’ which cost, 40s per lb., and two years afterwards with another parcel containing 22¾ lbs., for which the directors paid 50s per lb.”

Yet, in the course of time, tea, having lost its rarity value, became even more the drink of the poor than the drink of the rich. Even the most embittered enemy of the rich does not mutter “Capitalist!” as he sees you or me going into a London teashop today.

Take bicycles, again. When I was a boy the ownership of a bicycle, though it did not denote wealth, suggested at least “well-offness.”

The children in poor families no more expected to own bicycles than to own Shetlan ponies. The bicycle, as it became cheaper, however, gradually became the plaything of all classes, and today the poor man does not even regard his bicycle as a luxury.

Oysters, on the other hand, which, according to Sam Weller, were the food of the poor in the early part of the last century, have become so scarce that only a man with a good deal of superfluous money in his pocket can afford them. I do not think I have tasted an oyster since the war broke out, and I doubt whether I shall ever taste one again if income tax remains at its present level.

Perhaps, if oysters ever become common and winkles become rare, the rich will take to eating winkles, and any man seen eating winkles will be put on the proletarian black-list as a capitalist.

Herrings, again—if only they became scarce, how proud the rich would be of having them on their tables! Trout, Dover sole or salmon would seem poor stuff in comparison. Yet I have known poor people who could not eat herrings—simply, I am sure, because they were cheap—as I have heard or poor people in a salmon-fishing district in the old days who threatened to strike because they were given salmon too often at their meals.

What folly it is, this love of what is rare (and expensive only because it is rate), rare food, rare books, rare stamps, for instance. There are boos that are valuable because, like some Bibles, they contain a misprint.

An ordinary Bible is a better Bible, but of how little value it seems in comparison with the Bible that has no value except through a mistake!

Do not, then, let us be misled by high prices. Even if brazil nuts go up in price till they are ten shillings each, do not long for them any more than you did when they were only a few pence a pound. Leave them to the millionaires of the black market with their oysters and champagne and cigars and diamonds.

Even at the present price, estimated at 7½d. a nut, they are not worth eating; and, if you do eat them, you will only lay yourself open to the suspicion of being a bloated spiv.

 

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