Francis Spufford on ethics and economics in colonial America

I’m greatly enjoying Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, after waiting a year for it to appear in the US (what’s up with these ridiculous lags, publishing?).

It is wonderfully written, and it is hard for someone with an interest in economic history not to be charmed by a book whose plot revolves around the difficulties of moving money long distances in the era before modern banking and national currencies.

The bravura opening chapter is almost an essay on trust and the ethics of commerce, and is difficult to excerpt, but here’s a fun passage on changing money in 1746:

“Well, now, let’s see. We don’t get much London gold, the flow being, as you might say, all the other way; it’s moidores, and half-joes, mostly, when the yellow lady shows her face. So I believe I could offer you a hundred and eighty per centum on face, in New-York money. Which, for four guineas, would come to—”

“One hundred and fifty one shillings, twopence-halfpenny.”

“You’re a calculator, are you? A sharp reckoner. Now I’m afraid you can have only a little of it in coin; the reason being, as I said when first we began, that little coin is current at the present.” Lovell opened a box with a key from his fob chain and dredged up silver—worn silver, silver knocked and clatter’d in the battles of circulation—which he built into a little stack in front of Smith.

“A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”

Lovell accordingly began to count out a pile of creased and folded slips next to the silver, some printed black and some printed red and some brown, like the despoiled pages of a prayerbook, only of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms, whales spouting, shooting stars, feathers, leaves, savages; all of which he laid down with the rapidity of a card-dealer, licking his fingers fingers for the better passage of it all.

“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Smith. “What’s this?”

“You don’t know our money, sir?” said the clerk. “They didn’t tell you we use notes, specie being so scarce, this side?”

“No,” said Smith.

The pile grew.

“Fourpence Connecticut, eightpence Rhode Island,” murmured Lovell. “Two shilling Rhode Island, eighteenpence Jersey, one shilling Jersey, eighteenpence Philadelphia, one shilling Maryland . . .” He had reached the bottom of the box.

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