The Priceless Value of Fifty-Four Cents

Fifty-four cents

Eight coins. One quarter, two dimes, a nickel and four pennies. Fifty-four cents placed in a leather change purse over a century ago in 1918, enough to purchase a pound of round steak, a pound of wheat bread and a quart of milk.1 The tarnished coins are now worn and scratched after years of rubbing together in the cracked buckskin pouch. Fifty-four cents for a shopping excursion that would never take place.

Anna Marie Swanson was a young woman of the highest regard in the South Renovo Community, in Clinton County, Pennsylvania. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she was the wife of Carl Oscar Anderson, an industrious Swedish immigrant whom Anna had married in September 1916 in an elegant evening ceremony at her parent’s home.23 Anna, a fair-haired beauty, was known to have been seen about town with her husband dressed in shiny button boots, a giant fox stole and an even more massive fur muff, making a striking image.4 Her leather change purse was kept in a fashionable delicate sterling silver mesh bag with a double ball clasp and linked chain strap.


By October 1918 Pennsylvania was in the midst of the Spanish influenza epidemic. Twenty-nine-year-old Anna, her immune system weakened from the birthing bed, succumbed on the 21st of the month.56 For her grief-stricken husband, left to raise two young sons, fourteen-month-old Carl Berton7 and four-week-old John Rolland,8 time appeared to have stopped.

Unlike many young widowers of the time, Carl never remarried. Instead, he turned to Anna’s mother, Eva Swanson, to care for their boys in the loving South Renovo home Anna herself had been raised in. Carl left his position in the machine shop of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Renovo and travelled to Detroit. There he found employment with the Ford Motor Company, sending money back home regularly to support his family. Never once disturbing Anna’s coins.


How or when Anna’s purse travelled to Detroit is not known, but it did. The chain mail bag discoloured with time has affectionately been stored and cared for as it has passed through the generations. Travelling from Detroit to Florida to New Jersey to North Carolina where the little bag and its contents are proudly cherished by a great-granddaughter of Anna and Carl’s.9

The young woman’s purse, with its precious fifty-four cents, a quiet talisman of life, love, and dreams never fulfilled, and never forgotten.

Anna Marie Swanson
Anna Marie (Swanson) Anderson

  1. Pearle, Raymond and Magdalen H. Burger. (1919) Retail prices of food during 1917 and 1918. American Statistical Association. Vol. 16 (127), September, pp. 437-438. : accessed 14 January 2019. []
  2. Marriages (CR) USA. South Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. 21 September 1916. ANDERSON, Carl Oscar and SWANSON, Anna Marie. File no. 7429. []
  3. Marriage announcements. (1916) Clinton County Times. 21 September. ANDERSON, Carl O. and SWANSON, Anna M. p. 5a. []
  4. Images: Photograph. Carl Oscar ANDERSON and Anna Marie SWANSON, with a baby stroller. Winter of 1917. South Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. Private Collection of Jules Anderson. []
  5. Deaths (CR) USA. Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. 21 October 1918. ANDERSON, Mrs Anna. File no. 139758. Collection: Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1966. : accessed 14 January 2019. []
  6. Death announcements. (1918) Clinton County Times. 25 October. ANDERSON, Mrs Carl. p. 10c. []
  7. Births (CR) USA. Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. 25 August 1917. ANDERSON, Carl Berton. File no. 234-26[illegible]. []
  8. Births (PR) USA. Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. 18 September 1918. ANDERSON, John Rolland. St. John’s Lutheran Church. Collection: US, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Swedish Church Records, 1800-1946. Image 432. : accessed 14 January 2019. []
  9. ANDERSON, Anna Marie (Swanson) (1889-1917). Stirling silver fine mesh purse with small leather change pouch containting eight coins, totaling fifty-four cents. Originally owned by Anna and passed down through generations to the author. Maintained in a private collection in Wilmington, North Carolina. []

One Reply to “The Priceless Value of Fifty-Four Cents”

  • Great post – I enjoyed reading it very much! (My grandmother died of influenza when my father was only 2 years old, so I never knew her). Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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