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August 2006

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From:
Caleb Crain <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Date:
Mon, 21 Aug 2006 14:39:13 -0400
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Thanks to everyone on the list who has helped out with the mystery of  
the New York shilling. It turns out the currency and coinage in the  
U.S. before the Civil War is a great big mess, and I'm not sure I've  
got the answer. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the New  
York shilling, or "York shilling," was worth about 12.5 U.S. cents  
between the 1830s and 1850s, but that the actual coin referred to was  
a Spanish (or Latin American) real. There were eight reales in a  
Spanish dollar; thus the nickname for Spanish dollars, "pieces of  
eight." (This would also explain the slang reference to a quarter as  
"two bits," i.e., two reales, or two York shillings.) Frank Anderson  
found a picture of a Spanish real that circulated in New York, in the  
American Numismatic Society website: <http://www.numismatics.org/ 
lookup.cgi?string=1969.222.4645>.

The York shilling does not seem to have been equivalent to the  
English shilling or to the Canadian shilling. For example, in William  
Chambers's "Things as They Are in America" (1854), the Astor Hotel is  
said to cost $2.50 a day, or "10s. English," so it looks like an  
English shilling = 25. According to an 1834 guide for emigrants to  
Canada <http://ist.uwaterloo.ca/~marj/genealogy/emigrants1834.html>,  
5 Canadian shillings = 8 York shillings = US$1 = 4s 6d English money.  
(Of course, the exchange rate varied over time.)

Just as there were twelve English pence in an English shilling, there  
seem to have been twelve pence in a York shilling, making pence in  
New York almost equivalent to U.S. cents (12 N.Y. pence = 12.5).  
There's an example of calculating in York shillings and pence in  
George G. Foster's "New York in Slices" (1848). A waiter tallies up  
"Clamsoup sixpnce, rosebeef large, shilln, roastchikn eighteen, extra  
bread three, butter sixpnce, pickle sixpnce, pudn sixpnce, cheese  
three, claret two shilln," and arrives at the sum of "seven shilln."  
By a little primitive algebra, this means that 3 shillings + 48 pence  
= 7 shillings, and thus one York shilling is worth 12 pence. (Note  
that the pence in question would not be equivalent to English pence,  
which, like English shillings, would be roughly twice as valuable as  
the New York version.)

It seems hard to say for how long or how widely this meaning of a  
York shilling (i.e., 12.5, in the form of a Spanish coin) obtained.  
In the 1855 novel "The Modern Othello," a young Irish boy in a  
morning of re-selling newspapers earns "50 cents, an one shillin' an'  
two fips," which he later gives to his mother, saying, "There's the 6  
shillin' an' the two fips mother." A "fip" seems to be a nickel; in  
any case, by his math, a shilling is worth only 10. Perhaps the  
value of a York shilling declined in the 1850s? Or maybe the novelist  
simply wasn't much good at math. This is already more than I needed  
to know about New York coinage, so I'll leave that mystery to other  
investigators. Thanks again to all who sent me advice and clues.

Caleb Crain
Brooklyn, N.Y.

>
>>>> [log in to unmask] 7/26/2006 3:30 PM >>>
> Hi, all,
>
> I wonder if any of you might be able to help me out with a
> numismatical question, or to point me in the direction of the answer.
>
> What was a "shilling" in New York City in the 1840s/1850s? I had
> thought it was just a way of saying 12.5 cents, and didn't refer to
> an actual coin, but I've found an account of someone having his
> shilling engraved and framed (in the spirit that merchants today
> sometimes display above their cash registers the first dollar they
> ever took in). Any suggestions will be appreciated.
>
> all best,
> Caleb Crain
> Brooklyn, NY
>
> -- 
> [log in to unmask]

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