Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Balsam, Blunt, the Lour, Mint-sauce, and the Ready Rhino

Okay...now that you’re thoroughly confused about the topic of today’s post…

Believe it or not, these five terms all mean the same thing: money. I’m not sure of the origin of most of them (how did “rhino” come to be slang for cash?) but I love their color and creativity.

The English monetary system, up until 1971 (we’ll talk about that date in a few minutes), was as eccentric to modern eyes as the above slang terms. Our 19th century misses knew about farthings, pennies (pence), shillings, pounds, crowns, sovereigns, guineas…so what was what?

Pounds, shillings, and pence were the main units of value. There were 12 pence to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. The symbol for pound was written ₤, s. was shilling, and d. meant pence…so, say, a bonnet costing 5 pounds, 8 shillings, and 9 pence would have a price tag marked ₤5.8.9. A box of candy costing 4 shillings and sixpence would be marked 4/6. A penny stamp would set you back 1d. Okay so far?

The actual coinage was slightly different. In the 19th century, the one pound coin didn’t exist under that name: a coin worth one pound was called a sovereign. They and half-sovereigns (worth half a pound) were gold. A crown was made of silver and was worth 5 shillings, or a quarter of a pound (and there were also half-crowns, worth, of course, 2 1/2 shillings). A florin was worth 2 shillings and was also silver, and a shilling was worth—yes, you guessed it—a shilling.

Are you still with me?

Then there were the penny-related coins, some made from silver, others copper and later bronze. There was the sixpence (I don’t need to explain that, do I?), the fourpence, threepence, twopence (known as “tuppence”), and the penny. The first three of these were silver, the rest copper or bronze.

Even the lowly penny had its divisions. There was the halfpenny coin (a “ha’pence”), the farthing (worth a quarter of a penny), and the half farthing (worth an eighth of a penny).

And what about guineas? This gets even odder…the guinea coin was worth 21 shillings (one shilling more than a pound). Although they were no longer made after about 1817 the existing ones remained in circulation and became, in a way, the coinage of the wealthy—expensive items were usually valued in guineas, not pounds.

In addition to all this, each coin had various nicknames, as did values…for example, if you hear about Lord Whatchamacallit betting Sir Whosit a monkey on the outcome of a wager, they weren’t exchanging wildlife—a “monkey” was slang for ₤500. A coachwheel was a crown, a half-borde was sixpence, a groat fourpence….

Phew! I think I begin to understand why in 1971 they decimalized the English monetary system and went to the plain and simple, if far less colorful, 100 pence to a pound!


QNPoohBear said...

You lost me with the subject title. I'm so glad they changed because I would have been dreadfully lost the entire semester I spent in London! i had enough trouble trying to convert prices in pounds to dollars.

Lana said...

I read a ton of historical fiction and romances, and I'm always confused as to how much things are worth. So, I'm just going to throw out there: Most helpful post Ever! Thanks so much!

Christina Farley said...

Very interesting. I have noticed this in historicals that I've read but hadn't thought it all through. It makes sense now.

Marissa Doyle said...

I'm so glad it's helpful! I learned a lot writing this as well.

I'm trying to decide whether or not to tackle the subject of buying power--what a shilling would actually buy you. I think so long as I don't try to draw parallels between today's money and 1815's money, it will work. Let me noodle on this one a bit.

Dara said...

I got lost after the first paragraph :P Perhaps if it wasn't so late and I read over this three or four times, I'd get it.

But it was very informative and something I'll look back on when I read a historical set in England.

Now, if only I could figure out the entire monetary system for Meiji era Japan...:P

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