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October 1997


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"A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Densmore <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 22 Oct 1997 20:43:42 -0400
"A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
TEXT/PLAIN (79 lines)
On Wed, 22 Oct 1997, Burrows wrote:

> Can anyone out there provide any information on when New Yorkers stopped
> using the British system of pounds, shilling, and pence? In 1797 the state
> legislature officially endorsed the decimal dollar system established by
> Congress in the 1792 Coinage Act, but I seem to recall that some people
> continued to use the British system as late as the 1820s. I have no
> idea why, however.

I have seen account books kept entirely in York Currency (8/ = $1.00) into
the 1830s, and account books using shillings (1/ = 12 1/2 cts) into the
1860s. Arithmetic texts well into the 1840s commonly carried sections
explaining how to reduce the various state currences into "federal money"
and vice versa.

The system makes a little more sense if you realize that outside of
cities, much of the economy was what has been called "book keeping barter"
e.g. a series of exchanges of goods and services for other goods and
services recorded in account books, but with very little actual currency
ever passing hands. As a "money of account" the old York shilling was as
good as anything else.

When money did pass hands, it was often in a bewildering variety of coins
and notes. A storekeeper in the 1840s was likely to encounter Spanish,
Portugese, French, etc., coinage passing as legal tender, and had to go to
the trouble of converting everything to a common system. In the 1840s, the
merchant would probably translate everything into "federal money" but a
few conservatives would persist in converting sums in (and out) of pounds,
shillings and pence.

York currency, where eight shillings was one Spanish milled dollar, was a
bit easier to figure than some of the other early American currencies.
None of the American currencies was actually equivalent to the British
system. Daboll's Arithmetic (1829) lists four different currencies:

New England, Virginia, Kentucky and Tenessee  6/ = $1.00
New York and North Carolina 8/ = $1.00
NJ, Pa, Del. and Maryland 7/6 = $1.00
South Carolina, Georgia 4/8 = $1.00

There was also a Halifax currency, but I don't have a source in front of
me that says how that was figured.  Almost any American arithmetic printed
before 1830, and probably most before 1840, would have elaborate
instructions on how to convert from one system of money to the others.

Other than account books, you do run into the traces of the old York
currency in prices of books and other goods up to the Civil War, which run
quite often run in shilling increments:

12 1/2, 24, 37 1/2, 50, 62 1/2, 75, 87 1/2 cents.

You also occasionally run into cheaper books (almanacs, chap books) listed
as costing 6 1/4 cts (half a shilling). There was a half cent piece, but
no quarter cent piece.  It used to puzzle me why so many old text books
have 37 1/2 penciled into the corner of the cover or flyleaf, but that was
just converting 3/ (three shillings) into federal money.

Anyway, New Yorkers weren't exactly using the British system; they were
using an obsolete system of pounds, shillings and pence, as a way of
expressing value long after there was any actual currency that actually
carried that value. Most people gave up keeping track of pounds and pence
by the 1830s, but the convention of expressing prices in shillings (york
shillings and one eighth of a dollar) continued much longer.

If you want a citation, there is an obscure article by Densmore in the
Midwestern Archivist which I can dig out for you if you are really

Christopher Densmore
University Archives
University at Buffalo
420 Capen Hall
Box 602200
Buffalo, New York  14260-2200

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