Strange that we identify with this when we hardly ever deal with pennies. In fact, some people believe that we should do away with this near-obsolete currency; one group has a whole website devoted to it!
Today I've been reading a paper from Feminist Studies, "Housewives, Socialists and the Politics of Food: The 1917 New York Cost-of-Living Protests" by Dana Frank (1985). It looks at the food riots and the connection to the Socialist party which had a stronghold in NYC at the time. In the paper, Frank documents examples of increases in the cost of food: potatoes suddenly went from $0.05/lb to $0.10/lb, onions from $0.14/lb to $0.18.
It's hard to connect with what those four or five pennies mean. I remember reading All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor about a family of five young jewish girls growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century (I should definitely re-read this book). I remember the girls going to the cracker barrels to buy 1/2 cent crackers as a special treat! I could never figure out how they actually paid for it - how could they possibly split a penny in half? Did they give the shopkeeper the other half for future credit? Adolescent misunderstanding aside, it's still hard to comprehend. Nowadays, when prices go up, they seem more likely to increase by a quarter or a dollar so as to facilitate making change. Just look at the MTA - their fare increases to the single-ride fare jump by $0.50 at a time (we won't talk about the monthly card).
A huge difference today is that we can (most of us do) live on credit. When the price of food goes up, we'll probably just put it on our credit card (or put something else on the credit card) to compensate. That is, of course, my own perspective and I realize that I am very fortunate. I know that millions of people around the world can't do that. In America, perhaps, we are living in a very warped world indeed.
There's one quote in the article that stuck out to me, from a woman protester explaining why it was necessary to boycott and riot:
"With $14 a week, we used to just make a living. With prices as they are now, we could not even live on $2 a day. We would just exist."
Let us not forget that almost one hundred years later, there are still people trying to exist on $2 a day.