“Penny Wise” (Vancouver Sun) joins “Edith Adams” (Vancouver Province) and “Cousin Rosemary” (Country Life in BC) as one of several newspaper writers who wrote about food and everyday life. Evelyn A. Caldwell used the name “Penny Wise”, a twist on the old saying, penny-wise and pound-foolish to help BC consumers to get the most for their food money. Her column covered 30 years of consumer advice beginning with postwar homemakers who wanted to buy war-scarce commodities. It was entitled Shopping Guide by Penny Wise and became a popular must-read of homey tips, eventually simply called Penny Wise.
Evelyn Caldwell eventually wrote over 7,800 Penny Wise columns, contributed to the visibility of women in the press, was elected to the City of Vancouver Council, and met Elvis Presley in 1956 on a choice assignment. (What’s not to like about that?)
Caldwell’s unique style of writing read like a conversation with a friendly knowledgeable neighbor. In her August 4, 1952 column she described her “pleasant duty to tell you [consumers] what some fruit or vegetable is at the top of its form, so you can buy the best and cheapest” (p. 14)[i].
She informed consumers when mandarin oranges were going down in price in a January 2, 1953 column: “Have you noticed how those nice easy to peel Japanese oranges have been going down in price since Christmas. They were $1.19 a box one day and on Wednesday I saw them for 99 cents.” (p. 20)[ii].
Caldwell made sure that her readers didn’t miss out on new products such as flavours in pie filllings (peach and apricot) in this November, 1955 column. After a trip to Kelowna, she mentioned the fillings and offered the option of eating them right out of the can for anyone who didn’t want to make pies for dessert. She supported locally-grown and easily available produce – in a January 1969 column she informed readers about great buys in vegetables and fruits in Chinatown[iii].
In addition to buying tips and consumer information, Caldwell is credited with influencing food consumption in British Columbia. For example, she apparently loved broccoli and one importer credited her with singlehandedly boosting waning broccoli sales in Vancouver[i]. The Vancouver History website provides the following anecdotes about Caldwell:
April 23 1952 – In her column in The Vancouver Sun, Penny Wise told of a visiting American who complained he couldn’t find any restaurant in Vancouver that served something called a Caesar salad. Penny wrote that she’d never heard of it. But she found a recipe for it and shared it with her readers. So now we can date fairly specifically the arrival on the local scene of the Caesar[ii].
She had a loyal following and she called her fans the FFFers, for Feminine Fighting Force. They became a marketplace watch group and she frequently encouraged them to write letters to change consumer laws, such as supporting Tilly J. Rolston’s campaign for coloured margarine [iii].
She was also known to write letters. According to Pierre Berton (1952) she once wrote an open letter to the Minister of Finance that started out:
Dear Mr. Abbott: Of course you, with your $16,000 every 12 months— including that $2,000 for car expenses alone—cannot be expected to lie awake nights worrying because the price of potatoes in Vancouver was allowed to jump one hundred percent overnight…[iv]
Caldwell aspired to be a news reporter but was hired to take charge of the Penny Wise column at a time when most women reporters were relegated to the society or “women’s” pages[v] but she did managed to cover other interesting “hard news” type of events in her own down to earth style . For example:
- In 1951 she went to Korea to see how our Canadian soldiers were making out. This was described in an article in Time Magazine in an article titled “The Press: Girls Meet Boys”
Pert, brunette Evelyn Caldwell, 42, who writes the Penny Wise shopping column for The Vancouver Sun (circ. 161,603), got a chance two months ago at a free air trip to Australia. When she asked Sun publisher Don Cromie for permission to go, Cromie, thinking of the local soldiers fighting overseas in the Korean War, meditatively twirled the globe on his desk. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘Korea is only about four inches from Australia. You’d better drop in there and see how our boys are making out. For the past six weeks, Sun readers have been following Penny Wise’s gushy, column-long dispatches from the Korea front. For the past six weeks, Sun readers have been following Penny Wise’s gushy, column-long dispatches from the Korea front. Their emphasis was on how Penny herself, not the boys, was faring. One of her first discoveries was the shortage of ladies’ powder rooms along the 38th parallel. Near the front line, she “prayed fervently for a set of bulletproof undies.[vi]“
Her readers loved her style and her nightly dispatches regularly “outpulled the factual war correspondence.[vii]”
- In April 1956 she was sent to Monaco to cover Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier. According to John Mackie (2015, April 17),
It was a big deal. So big that The Vancouver Sun dispatched its consumer columnist, Penny Wise, to Monaco to cover the nuptials in her “colourful style”. Wise arrived a few days early and found the “happy, heir-expecting, tax-free people of Monaco” turning their tiny principality “inside out and upside down” to greet Kelly. “They wanted to present (Monaco’s) most beautiful face to ‘la belle American,’ upon whom the hopeful Monegasques pin all their faith of remaining the carefree country they are at present,” Wise related. Wise was referring to a popular belief that Monaco would lose its independence and revert to French sovereignty if Prince Rainier did not produce an heir. The tiny, two-square-kilometre principality had been independent for centuries, funded by Europe’s most famous casino.[viii]
By the time Caldwell retired in 1974, she had coached 30 years of readers to compare prices and insist on value for their money in addition to articles on other events ranging from politics, to crime, to sports, to war and conflict. She described her style as being the “eyes and ears of her readers”. She had the uncanny ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and her light-hearted conversational approach to everyday life endeared her to her readers.
As one of the first full-time consumer columnists Evelyn Caldwell (Penny Wise) set the trend in consumer reporting in British Columbia and beyond.
[i] Berton, Pierre (1952, January 1). From Paris To Pusan With Penny.
[iv] Berton, Pierre (1952, January 1). From Paris To Pusan With Penny.
[v] Lang, Marjory (1990). Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada, 1880-1945. Montreal, QB: McGill-Queen’s Press; http://www.vancouversun.com/Newswomen+gain+ground+1950s/7280806/story.html
[viii] Mackie, John (2015, May 17). This Week in History: 1956. http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/movie-guide/this+week+history+1956/10982091/story.html