Two bits once meant something

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There’s an old Abbott and Costello routine where Bud tells a friend, “I spent $10,000 to send my boy to college, and all I got was a quarterback.”

Costello likes the joke and tells an acquaintance, “A guy spent 10 grand sending his kid to college, and all he got back was two bits.”

So, why is a quarter two bits?

Rewind to the late 1700s when the colonies had just sent the British packing and were busy hammering out the framework of a new republic. The coin of the realm was the Spanish dollar, a coin that could be broken into eight pieces called bits. Each bit was worth 12 and a half cents. Two bits was a quarter of a dollar, four bits a half, and six bits was 75 cents.

Pieces of eight were legal currency until 1857 when Congress passed the Coinage Act prohibiting the use of foreign coins as currency. The tentacles of inflation must have been creeping into the economy even then, for Congress also discontinued minting the half-cent, a coin left over from the British ha’penny.

After that, two bits settled into a long and useful life. Along with the strains of “Sweet Adeline,” barbershop quartettes around the country reminded guys they could get a shave and a haircut for two bits. My grandfather talked about buying a round of beer for his buddies at the local pub for 20 cents. He’d put two bits on the able and leave the nickel for a tip.

As late as 1960, two bits would buy a box of corn flakes, a pound of bacon, a loaf of bread or a quart of milk. For 27 cents I could get three boxes of Kraft Dinner. Today I fork over a 20-dollar bill, and all I get back is two bits.


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