There are many idioms known from the Boomer Era that have worn well through the ages (“That’s cool” being one), while others have passed into the dustbin of history. One such phrase is, “Drop a dime.” Originally, the phrase was used in police jargon to ask informants to call them about someone’s illegal activity of which they were aware, and conversely, by criminal organizations to describe someone who “ratted” out a fellow member. From there, it spread into general use with a more literal meaning. When you asked someone to drop a dime on you, it was a request that they give you a call. Likewise, if you asked someone to drop a dime, they should call you. Sometimes the phrase could be joined by other phrases, such as “don’t be a stranger, drop a dime,” or “drop a dime and let’s talk.”
The connection between a dime and a phone call was a direct one: a phone call at a pay phone (remember those?) cost ten cents. The caller would literally place a dime in the slot, and it would drop through the phone, signaling with a ding to make the call. Prior to 1950, a phone call was five cents, which makes the phrase a true product of the Boomer Era. This rise to ten cents came about the same time that glass phone booths replaced wooden ones. By 1960, outdoor drive-up pay phones also were introduced.
If a boomer was traveling alone, perhaps for the first time, a boomer’s dad might say, “Drop a dime on your mother, and let her know you arrived safely.” He might also offer that dime to his child. The phrase was used by both generations with the same understanding.
The idea of always needing a dime to make a call was an important lesson to learn for growing boomers. Not only did boomers need to keep in touch with parents and potential dates, but even emergency calls needed coins before 1968, when the law Congress passed the previous year initiated the nationwide 911 system. This led some boomers to update their penny loafers by carrying dimes in the places pennies might previously have occupied.
In 1973, the cost of a phone call jumped from 10 cents to 20 cents, thereby signaling the beginning of the end of practical usage of the phrase.
Mister Boomer didn’t have much occasion to use the phrase himself, but heard it spoken among neighborhood kids and occasionally by his father. Yet Mister B was known to go to a phone booth to drop a dime on a girl he wanted to ask out. That was infinitely better than having to use the phone on the kitchen wall.
How about you, boomers? Did you use the phrase, drop a dime, or did someone ask you to do so?