It was the Great Depression and Marshall's dad was out of work. Marshall's mom was a seamstress but she wasn't getting much work done on her broken down sewing machine. His uncle, also unemployed, had moved in with them and their house was getting crowded. Marshall was getting tired of eating beans for dinner every night, but that was all his family could afford.
One day, as Marshall walked home from school, he noticed something in the window of Kaplan's Furniture Store -- a brand new sewing machine. And beside it was a giant jar of beans. Marshall knew his mom would loved to have that sewing machine but the price tag attached to it said $23.95. How could they afford it? But then he noticed the sign advertising a contest: Guess how many beans are in the jar and win the sewing machine.
Marshall was anxious to share the news with his mom so he hurried home. He explained the contest to his mom and then got to work his math homework. He was studying measurement and his mom helped him to figure out how many cups were in a pint and how many pints were in a quart. She lent him a Mason Jar which had held preserves in more prosperous times, and an old milk bottle. Marshall filled the jar with water until he had filled the bottle.
The ladies at Marshall's church knew how desperate his family was and gave them five sacks of beans. When Marshall had retrieved the Mason jar and milk bottle he had noticed a pickle crock downstairs. He realized that the crock was about the size of the beans jar at Kaplan's Furniture Store. He had an idea: he would fill the pickle crock with the beans from the sacks and count them as he went. However, the beans only filled up part of the crock. That was where estimating came into play. Marshall estimated the number of beans in a quart. Then he filled quarts of water until he filled the pickle crock. Then he multiplied the number of beans times the number of quarts. His answer was 53,280.
Mrs. Loman entered the contest and used Marshall's figure as her guess. At 327 entries, the competition was steep. The correct number of beans was 53, 293. Marshall's mom won the sewing machine! She was able to get work mending and sewing clothes and help the family out at a time when 1/4 white Americans was out of work and 2/4 black Americans.
Becky Birtha's story is based on the story of her grandmother, who really did enter and win a bean counting contest.