Last night I was doing some Swedish death cleaning of old emails, as one does, and found that way back in 2006, when I was still attempting to write a book of New York history, I asked a listserv if anyone knew what was meant by a “shilling” in New York in the early 19th century. Then, about a month later, I reported back an answer. I gave up on that book of New York history long ago (and wrote Necessary Errors instead, and even returned the advance for the history book, which, I know, no one does), but at least to me as someone who today no longer knows much of anything about New York history, the answer I came up with looks impressively thorough and seems worth archiving. So here it is, for any googlers who need to know… (I have updated the links, all of which had died, but otherwise have left my 2006 answer more or less undisturbed by time.)
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.
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.
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 (Official Information for Emigrants, Arriving at New York and who are desirous of Settling in the Canadas, 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.