May 29, 2002
Historical Quibble

Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy quotes reader Josh Furman:

There is a famous story (it may be apocryphal) that I've heard about [the late] Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner (the former head of the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn and a famous luminary in the circles that make rabbis famous). He was asked by a student back in the 50's or 60s when to keep the Sabbath on the moon.

He replied "Here is a Quarter, call me when you get there." Well I guess that time has come.

The story may not be entirely apocryphal, but it is certainly looks embroidered and updated, at best. Telephone calls didn't cost a quarter in the 1950s and 1960s, did they?

Of course, a call from the moon would have been long distance, but wouldn't that have cost much more than a quarter, even then? If you want a learned rabbi's opinion on a difficult topic, an old-fashioned three-minute call is probably not going to be enough. So I think the reference must be to an ordinary short-distance telephone call, however illogical that may be.

A diligent search in a good reference library could find clear evidence on prices of telephone calls in different cities in different years. But that would be dull as well as laborious, so let's just stick to song lyrics. There are probably dozens of pop songs that mention the price of a telephone call. Here are the two I can think of right now:

1. Peter Rowan, "Midnight Moonlight", from the album Old And In The Way (1975):

If you ever feel lonesome, and are down in San Antone
Beg, steal or borrow two nickels or a dime and call me on the phone.

2. Travis Tritt's best-known line:

Here's a quarter (Call someone who cares)

This is the punchline and title of a song on his second album, It's All About To Change (1991).

Conclusion: If the price of a telephone call was still only a dime in 1975, it's unlikely to have been a quarter in Brooklyn or anywhere in the U.S. in the 1950s or 1960s. It has been a quarter for over ten years now, so it's an easy mistake to retroject (oops: lit-crit jargon alert!) today's price to a previous decade.

Tangential Note: In the liner notes to Tritt's album, the same song includes one of my all-time favorite typographical errors:

Call someone who'll listen, and might give a damn
Maybe one of your sorted affairs.

It sounds as if the repentant ex has so many lovers she has to keep track of them with a card file, spreadsheet, or database. It's fun to think of likely categories: 'looks, no money', 'money, no looks', and so on. The web-version of the lyrics fixes the error.

Update: (6/1, 4:50 PM)

My brother tells me that pay phones in the Baltimore area just went up from 35 to 50 cents per call. So "Here's a Quarter (Call someone who cares)" was already obsolete only eleven years after it was written -- not that the implied background of a Travis Tritt song is Maryland, of course. He also reminds me of the old saying "it's your nickel", which implies that the cost of a pay telephone call was a nickel at some point -- probably the 30's or 40's. Thanks, Steve!

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 29, 2002 11:52 PM