Mad Money for Nothing

A few weeks ago my father was in town from California to visit with family and attend his 50th high school reunion in New Canaan, Connecticut. I had recently moved, so he came to see my new apartment and to advise me on where I might hang which framed art. Pointing to a triptych of French comics about a band of blond triplets, he asked with raised eyebrows, “Who paid to have these so expensively framed?” “You did,” I reminded him with a smile, “for my birthday, three years ago.” I insisted they were going to last forever and I would give them to my kids one day as heirlooms. “Speaking of heirlooms,” he said, producing a silver locket from one of his innumerable pockets, “see if you can guess what this is!”

It was about the size of a chestnut and dimpled like a golf ball. On one side was a smooth circular panel for a monogram. The only outwardly apparent fact was that it was a locket, and even that was hard to prove; it took me a good minute to locate the button mechanism by which it opened. Inside was a spring-loaded coin holder containing a single dime. “Is it, for like, payphones?” I ventured. “No, keep going.” “Milk money?” I guessed half-heartedly; that phrase had always been meaningless to me. He gave me hints: It was his mother’s, probably in the 1930s. He showed me how the coin slot fit pennies and dimes but not nickels and quarters. “Cab fare? Tip?” “You’re getting close…” After repeating the same four guesses, I gave up. He delivered the answer enthusiastically and through a chortle, as though it were a punchline that made him laugh just to think of it: “It’s for mad money!” My look of anticipation lingered, so he continued, “If you get mad at your date! So you can get yourself home!”

Googling the phrase “mad money” yields the currency code and exchange rate for the Moroccan dirham, references to Jim Cramer’s shouty investing show on CNBC, and a 2008 bank-heist chick-flick starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes. Expanding the query to “mad money locket” was slightly more promising:

A ghastly coin purse made of “silver tone metal” on Etsy:

A “Vintage World War 2” (think on that for a second) pin of “gold-tone” pressed steel:

A refurbished heart-shaped locket, enhanced by “swarovski crystals and pearls, and Lucite accents mounted on beautiful antiqued brass chain and tied together with a lovely antiqued Tibet bronze swirl hook toggle clasp”:

As a young lady on a date back in the thirties, you didn’t need to carry a purse, much less money. Your date would be paid for, of course, but just in case you needed to make an escape, you had a stylish and inconspicuous stash of change.

The most comprehensively curated entry on the phrase “mad money” comes from etymologist Barry Popik’s charming website “The Big Apple,” where he traces the first usage back to flappers in the 1920s. There was a spate of newspaper articles in 1922 describing “flapperanto,” an idiom of the time in which a girl was said to carry “mad money” in case she needed to ditch her date. “Thus the independent maid need not walk home in case she becomes angry with her escort at a dance,” wrote Carl Victor Little in the Sandusky Star-Journal. “She just takes her mad money, calls a taxi and leaves Apollo flat on the wax.”

Expanding the search to Google Books yielded several advertisements, including one for “Clever Bracelets” in the September 27, 1947 issue of Billboard magazine:

A page of Life magazine from 1946 describing “handbag equipment” depicts a $500 gold mesh mad-money purse that holds $0.17:

A Ladies’ Home Journal ad for what men should know about women and money that appeared in the December 19, 1953 issue of The New Yorker includes a panel with a “mad money” reference: “A man can get stony broke, but a woman can always locate a few dollars in a George III tea-caddy, a mad-money locket, or the creases of your favorite lounge chair.” Some of these still hold true (e.g., “3. Masculine advice on how to spend money leaves a woman singularly unmoved”). Others, not so much (e.g., “9. To make her really happy once in a while, you should forget to make out the check stub”).

Otto Titzling, the fictional inventor of the brassiere (get it? two-tit sling?), is also apocryphally credited with the invention of the bra with the Built-in Mad Money Purse, according to Wallace Reyburn’s “Bust-up:the uplifting tale of Otto Titzling and the development of the bra”:

A page from the May 2, 1977 issue of New York magazine has a flower-child version of a mad-money pouch, made from satin ribbon. It’s “trimmed with one morning glory…and a bit of ombré ribbon”:

But my favorite result is from a book by Hill Harper (a.k.a. Dr. Sheldon Hawkes from CSI: NY) called Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny:

Harper, who is 45, writes about the “mad money” concept as a secret girl code, passed down by generations of grandmothers and mothers. Then why hadn’t I heard of it as such? Had my mother failed me? As Harper’s mother explained it, a woman’s secret stash of money is “what guarantees her independence and gives her peace of mind.” Once, in college, a traumatic subway mishap nearly caused me to miss a flight home for Christmas, and my mother suggested I keep $100 in the back of my wallet “for emergencies.” I have never done that, and I probably never will. This week, as I showed off the locket, the most common response is a half-cynical, “Well, a dime isn’t gonna get you anywhere!” I laugh every time, because now I get my father’s joke. The gift was that I had never needed it in the first place.

Silvia Killingsworth lives in New York and is the A-issue Editor of The New Yorker. She keeps a $200 bottle of champagne in her fridge in case of emergency.