Artifact Corner: 18th Century Currency Conversion Chart

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a very rare survivor of the late 18th Century. This is a foreign currency calculator from 1793 that belonged to Henry Delord. When Henry moved to upstate NY, he had stores that he operated in both Peru and Plattsburgh. On February 9th, 1793, Congress and the Senate passed an act regulating foreign coins, making them legal tender, and establishing their value. This is also the first year the US struck their first coins. Any and all merchants needed to know what the currency would be worth vs the new legal US tender. Hence this chart was made and sent to businesses throughout the new United States. Henry also made a smaller “cheat sheet” which we have here, probably using the amounts he saw most frequently in transactions at his stores. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of money.

Since the beginning of human history, we have traded things amongst ourselves to survive. If there was someone in your community that was better at a certain task than you were, you would often have that person complete the task, and then give them something in return for their services. This is known as the barter system, and is very effective in small communities. As people developed larger and more complex communities and cities, it became harder for them to trade off goods and services, and the need for a more regulated economy grew. Hence the need for a common currency. The first known iteration of coinage were manufactured in ancient Mesopotamia and were called a shekel. They were usually made of silver, and were used in the cities of Tyre and Carthage about 5,000 years ago. The Shekel was not exactly a coin, but more a unit of weight, to connote the value of a good or service. In 1,000 BCE, the Chinese began making coins out of bronze and copper, very valuable materials in their day. The idea of metal coins, which held values specified by their makers spread throughout Asia and into Europe. The Ancient Greeks began to make coins out of silver and gold around 650 BCE. The earliest Roman coins were made around 200 BCE and were made of bronze, but they later started manufacturing them out of silver and gold as well. The most commonly used coin in the Roman Empire was the denarius, which was made from pressed silver, and remained in circulation for over 500 years! A roman denarius, simply based on the silver content today would be worth $2.60 in US dollars.

As we move into the Middle Ages, we see the first use of paper money, created by the Chinese sometime around the year 700. The paper currency was lighter weight, and meant that taking large amounts of it for trading around the world was much easier, but, many traders distrusted this new paper money, and questioned it’s value. The Chinese paper money fell out of use by the year 1450, and it would be a long time before paper currency came back into fashion. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, metal coinage was king, and used throughout the world. This is not to say that the barter system completely disappeared, because it was still very common in smaller villages, through to modern day. The colonists settling in North America in 1690, had a form of paper money, well, kind of. Bills of exchange became a common part of the world economy during this time period. A bill of exchange is essentially a written order that one person or group will pay a specified amount of money on demand. So, while this is not exactly paper currency, it was a piece of paper that could be exchanged for a good or service. The first paper money made and issued in the United States did not happen until 1861. So, we’ve only had paper money in the US for 162 years, everything prior to that was coins or bills of exchange.

This table of conversions for foreign currency is in pretty good condition, given that is 230 years old. There are some ink stains, and the creases in it are pretty deep, mostly due to it being folded up, and likely stored in a pocket. It’s still a fascinating glimpse into our countries very early economy, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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