Making Sense of Money in Colonial America

£2 Colonial currency from the Colony of Rhode Island. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
£2 Colonial currency from the Colony of Rhode Island. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Prior to the Coinage Act of 1792, which established the dollar, the English pound was the primary form of currency in colonial America. The pound—which, in the Middle Ages, was valued the same as one pound of sterling silver—had 20 shillings, and each shilling had 12 pence (pennies).[1] (The modern pound follows the decimal system and, since 1971, has been divided into 100 pence.)

Family historians reading about English or colonial money will see the symbol £ for pounds, and the abbreviation s for shillings and d for pence. All derive from the Latin: £ resembling an L for libra, a Roman unit of weight; and the d and the s for denarius and solidus, Roman coins.[2] Sometimes a specific amount was written with those abbreviations, and sometimes a period was used to delineate each unit of currency: for example, £27 19s 6d or £27.19.06.

In addition to pounds (also called “sovereigns”), shillings (“bob”), and pence, when reading historic documents you’ll see reference to other coins, including the half-sovereign (10 shillings); crown (5 shillings); half-crown (2s 6d); sixpence (“tanner”); threepence (“thruppence”); twopence (“tuppence”); half penny (“ha’penny”); and farthing (quarter penny).

What were colonial currencies worth in today’s terms? Professor John J. McCusker has written, “£750 in Massachusetts during 1750 is worth roughly $48,000 in 2000,”[3] acknowledging that this figure is an approximation. In fact, historians do not agree on a basic formula to determine the current value of colonial American currency, owing to a lack of complete economic data, the fluctuating value of imported goods, and the fact that each colony—while following the English system—had its own currency. Further, a colony didn’t produce its own coinage, using instead existing coins in circulation, from the Netherlands, Spain, German states, and other countries.[4] As a result, many coins were valued differently from colony to colony.

And so what are we to think when we read, in an estate inventory, that a blue coat, jacket, and breeches were valued at £1 19s; a bed and bedding at £3 pounds 15s; 9 tons of English hay at £21 12s; and three fat swine at £5 6s 8d?[5] The best we can often do is look at the relative worth of items—and yet even that can be unreliable because some of the items might be imports, which would have been assigned a higher value. Thus we can see why Professor Ronald Michener says, “The differences between today and then are too great to make a comparison. Viewed from the twenty-first century, life in colonial America was like living on a different planet.”[6]

 Notes

[1] David Walbert, “The Value of Money in Colonial America,” North Carolina Digital History, www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-colonial/1646.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John J. McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 2001), cited in Ed Crews, “How Much Is That in Today’s Money?” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, vol. 2, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/summer02/money2.cfm.

[4] Jordan Louis, “The Comparative Value of Money between Britain and the Colonies,” University of Notre Dame Department of Special Collections, available at http://www.coins.nd.edu/ColCurrency/CurrencyIntros/IntroValue.html.

[5] Estate of Daniel Austin, Essex County Probate Records, online database at AmericanAncestors.org, Case no. 1011.

[6] Cited in Crews, “How Much Is That in Today’s Money?”

About Zachary Garceau

Zack Garceau is a Researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Masters Degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a BA in history from the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History.

18 thoughts on “Making Sense of Money in Colonial America

  1. When I traveled in the UK in the 1980s, I found the old system of pounds, shillings and pence very confusing. I could get the right number of pounds, but beyond that, that I simply had to trust shopkeepers to hunt through the change in my hand to pick out the right coins. Recognizing my American accent, everyone was very patient with me, but I’m sure a few were amused, bemused, or contemptuous once I was gone! I never had the sense I was being cheated, at least. Rationalizing the system to a decimal system made a lot of sense.

    While I agree that exact comparisons of money values over time are iffy, I think that with enough reading of old documents and books on colonial life, one can get a “feel” such that internal comparisons within similar areas and time periods are possible, even if they can’t adequately be made with modern times. For instance, in a particular will, it’s easy to compare who gets more and who gets less. I have some family wills, for instance, where there were large numbers of children, and the money didn’t always go to the oldest son, nor did the property, real estate or other, go as one might have expected. That’s valuable information, regardless of the comparable value to today’s money.

      1. Yes, at times, Spanish and French money was used especially prior to the establishment of an official mint. There was a Boston Mint from 1652 to 1682, however, as you might figure, it is difficult to distribute coins across great distances especially in those times, so colonists used what was available.

        In regards to the term ‘bucks,’ believe it or not, the term is ‘believed’ (the exact origin is uncertain) to be derived from actual bucks, or more accurately, buckskins. You can find a little bit more here:

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-b-bradshaw/all-that-moola_b_6007430.html

        and when they refer to the first use of the term bucks by Conrad Weiser in 1746, you can see the excerpt from his journal here:

        https://books.google.com/books?id=JDlDAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA41&dq=Conrad+Weiser+300+bucks&hl=en&sa=X&ei=n0DnVISHHcS0sASP-4KQDw&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Conrad%20Weiser%20300%20bucks&f=false

    1. I think you must have been in England before 1971, because in that year on 15th February Britain went decimal. (I know because it was my nineteenth birthday!) What a relief! You haven’t lived until you have had to add up in your head items in pounds shillings and pence! I used to work in a shop as a Saturday girl when I was 14, and everything was priced £1 19s 11d or whatever. The mental arithmetic needed to remember there were twelve pence in the shilling, but twenty shillings to the pound! I cheered when they brought in decimal money!

  2. Thank you so much for this post- it has answered a number of questions I have had for years. Also appreciate the sources listed to read for more information.

  3. The variation in values is well illustrated by the scene in Stevenson’s Treasure Island where Mrs. Hawkins attempts to collect the money due her by the late Captain Billy Bones. “I’ll show these rogues that I’m an honest woman,” said my [Jim Hawkin’s] mother. “I’ll have my dues, and not a farthing over. Hold Mrs. Crossley’s bag.” And she began to count over the amount of the captain’s score from the sailor’s bag into the one that I was holding. It was a long, difficult business, for the coins were of all countries and sizes—doubloons, and louis d’ors, and guineas, and pieces of eight, and I know not what besides, all shaken together at random. The guineas, too, were about the scarcest, and it was with these only that my mother knew how to make her count. Treasure Island, Chapter IV, The Sea Chest. (Project Gutenberg EBook of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson)

  4. Looking a little further back in England, I’ve come across mention of the Noble, equal to 6s. 8d., or 80d. This is the same as 1/3 of a pound, and in New England wills I’ve seen a bequest of 6s. 8d. a number of times. I guess the idea of the Noble hung on even after there wasn’t an actual coin any longer.

  5. This is very helpful. I have ancestors who lived in the late 18th century, and I found it very confusing when they used a variety of currencies. Thank you.

  6. This is wonderful information. We are learning about colonial times in our class and this made “cents” to my third graders! 🙂

  7. Reference Henry’s and Walter’s notes, the Guineas and Nobles were coins of gold, thus their rarety. Thanks, Zach, for an interesting article. Perhaps one of the most common “monies” was the Spanish 8 real piece which was readily divided into eight pieces. This “dollar”, being divided, became 2 bits for 1/4 dollar, which remains to this day “shave and a haircut – 2 bits”. The value of anything still depends on supply and demand, or what amount someone will pay.

  8. “When the new national government decided to adopt a decimal system of currency, the country merchants set up a convenient system of evaluating the new money in terms of the old, and it was a system which had no relation to the values in international exchange. A dollar was arbitrarily fixed as equivalent to six shillings. One-sixth of a dollar is 16 2/3 cents, and its nearest whole figure is 17 cents. Dr. Ambrose Howard[1] charged 17 cents for pulling a tooth, because probably for a hundred years in both Old and New England the regular charge for that service had been one shilling. . . . That shilling unit shows up in other services of the doctor. His charge for letting blood—one of the commonest treatments in his day—was 34 cents (two shillings). He charged the same for a bottle of elixir of paregoric, and his fifty cents for a bottle of jaundice bitters represented the usual three shillings.”[2]

    [1]. Dr. Ambrose Howard, a physician, practiced medicine in Sidney, Maine from 1802 to 1834. [Marriner, Ernest C., Kennebec Yesterdays, (Waterville, Maine : Colby College Press, 1954), p. 131].
    [2]. Marriner, Ernest C. Kennebec Yesterdays (Waterville, Maine : Colby College Press, 1954), p. 139. See also the similar discussion on p. 120.

  9. Thank you for the interesting article on Colonial money. I have ancestors that lived in Rhode Island at the time the pictured money would have been used as well as others living in Massachusetts. Being Canadian I knew we had used the British money for some time. Actually Canadian money was minted in England up until 1905 or beyond. Until reading your article I wasn’t aware when the dollar was established. Now living in the UK I am familiar with the £ as well as coming to grips with the Euro.

  10. “Old tenor” is a term referring to the value of paper money in Rhode Island in about 1740. At that time, without going into all the explanation about England and the paper money issue, RI
    decided to issue new bills, which they called, “new tenor.” These new bills were worth four times the value of the old ones. (Reference: Samuel Greene Arnold, The History of Rhode Island, vol. II, pp. 127-129) Thanks to Zackery Garceau for his article–I think trying to assess the monetary system of the colonies is very complicated, as well as trying to compare the values then with the dollars we use now. These changes in Rhode Island must have had a
    negative impact on business and trade, I would think.

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