Friday, November 21, 2014

Late 1930s college expenses logged in The Scribble-in Book

The Scribble-in Book was a Self-Book™ produced by The Colonial Press Inc. of Clinton, Massachusetts, back in the day.

About two dozen pages of this thick blank book were used in the late 1930s to record the daily expenses (and other notes) of a U.S. college student. It's pretty fascinating. Almost all of the expenditures are itemized, so it offers a window into the cost of higher education and a glimpse of college life three-quarters of a century ago.

The book begins with the student's freshman year in autumn of 1936 (a few weeks after the Summer Olympics in Berlin).

On September 7, a $1 pass (to something) was purchased. I think the passes, which were a recurring expense, related to transportation. And, as it turns out, transportation costs are a major theme of the logbook.

Other expenditures in September 1936 included $23 in fees, 50 cents for a key, $1 for book rental and 27 cents for paper.

Here's a full look at the book's first page.

The student must have had quite a commute to college. The second page details 14 different days on which he logged trips of both 82 miles and 12 miles, which would be a total of 1,316 miles. (He botches the math, however, and comes up with 1,416 total miles.)

Late-September and October expenses included various small tolls and "car fares." Also, 10 cents for ice cream and a nickel for candy. In the winter, expenses included $2 for bus tickets, a $25.50 fee (tuition?), 25 cents for "Xmas seals" and a nickel for paperclips. Books for the semester included Hygiene, Science, Psychology and English. A history book was rented for a quarter.

The total expenditures for 1936-37 are listed as $139.82 on a subsequent page. A total of $140 in 1937 would be the equivalent of about $2,242 today, according to The Inflation Calculator. So that's not bad for a year of college.

Meanwhile, here's the final page of the mileage log for 1936-37...

Driving 16,404 miles over the course of a college year (although that math might be off, as we saw) shows a lot of determination. Assuming he averaged 45 mph on the roads, that's at least 364 hours behind the wheel.

Moving along to the 1937-38 school year, the student stopped indicating the dates for expenditures. But we can still find some insightful details about what money was spent on. Books included Psychology, Geography, Zoology, Chemistry and English. There was also a 75-cent lab apron, a 30-cent dinner, 25-cent Bible dues and a whopping $14.70 for a "Fraternity Party." There are two separate $23 payments for tuition.

Mileage for 1937-38 was 16,576.

Moving along to 1938-39, tuition payments remained $23. Textbooks included Algebra, American Literature, Physics and Geometry. There are some 25-cent lunches, but not many. (I'm guessing he packed lunch most days, if he was indeed commuting from home.)

Other expenditures included 40 cents for flowers (for someone special?), a nickel for Christmas decorations, $17.50 for a tuxedo, $2 for "Speech Prob. Book," 50 cents for Debate Club dues and $5.48 for a "Virginia Trip."

The student continued his logbook for his senior year and even went back to writing down dates for some expenditures. The first tuition payment for Fall 1939 was $23. The mileage log is gone, so it's possible he was living at the fraternity at this point. Expenditures show much more of a social life, including 35 cents for movies and ice cream on a Saturday night. He was also purchasing more food — lots of milk, cakes, ice cream and candy. Plus, a pecan roll for seven cents. There was a trip to Canada and Detroit for $5.91.

His senior year expenditures totaled $150.20. The next-to-last purchase noted in the book is a gown, for $2.50.

I feel like we just went through four years of college in two dozen pages.

But who was this person?

There's no name anywhere in The Scribble-in Book. But a single loose item was tucked away inside, and it gives us the answer we're seeking. It's a receipt for $1 for "Freshman Class Dues," written out to George Miller from treasurer Edith Gallager on April 27, 1937. That corresponds perfectly with a line item of $1 for "class dues" on April 27, 1937, according to the freshman-year expenditures log.

So George Miller is our man. Unfortunately, that name is far too common to figure out where he was from or what college he attended, and there's nothing online that cross-references with an Edith Gallager.

If Miller is still alive, he'd be in his mid 90s.

Seeing that 90 percent of the pages in this book are still blank, I think it would be fun for a modern college student to use it in the same way Miller did. Then, someone in the future could compare and contrast two very different generations of college students.

In fact, you could probably get at least a half-dozen other students' expenditures into the book. It would be beyond awesome if you could get snapshots of college students from, say, the 1930s, the 2010s, the 2080s, the 2150s, the 2220s, the 2290s and the 2360s into one book, and then preserve it for eternity at some library or archive of the far future. (Perhaps Papergreat could even be mentioned in the small print on the nearby bronze plaque.)

So, if anyone out there wants to do the 2010s "chapter" of The Scribble-in Book, drop me a line!


  1. I loved reading this article! I found a Scribble-In book (color: navy) at a used book store in southern Vermont about 5-6 years ago, and picked it out for a couple dollars - and it's totally blank! It makes me feel a little less guilty about all the blank books I've bought to use like George Miller here did, but never got around to filling. Some part of me is fascinated by having a book that's still patiently waiting to be 'scribbled in' after all these years, but it was great getting a view into George's life. At least now I know about how old this book of mine might be!

  2. I just came across my grandmother's Scribble-In Book. The 1st page entry was for Dec. 19, 1932. "At the Christmas meeting of the Thursday Club, we each gave some one of the members a 10 cent gift accompanied with a verse. This book was mine --" The next entry was her Christmas card list. Next was a diary entry for my brother's birth. Lastly there is a listing of 26 song birds she saw/heard at our home the spring of '33.