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Chapter 11: currency.

To understand the currency used by our Medford ancestors, is to understand much of their habits and customs; for the mediums of exchange and barter, whatever they be, exert a magical influence over the labors, wishes, and attachments of society. Whatever has been prescribed by legislative authority, or adopted by general usage, as a medium of exchange, may be denominated currency. The substances adopted as a standard of value have been very various in different ages and countries. In ancient times, in Italy and Greece, the standard was cattle, sometimes leather; in Europe, a silver nail, iron bars, tin plates; in India, shells; in Africa, bricks [402] and beads; in Mexico, maize and cocoa; in the West Indies, sugar; in Newfoundland, dried cod; in Virginia, tobacco; and, among the Indians, wampum.

In this last article, and in peltry, our ancestors traded much with the aboriginal inhabitants. Wampum was a belt formed of shells, black and white. “The white,” says Roger Williams, “were made of the stock, or stem, of the periwinkle, when all the shell is broken off; and, of this sort, six of their small beads, which they make with holes to string their bracelets, are current with the English for a penny. The second is black, inclining to blue, which is made of the shell of a fish, which some English call hens-poquahock; and, of this sort, three make an English penny. One fathom of this, their stringed money, is worth five shillings.”

To show how this shell-currency of the natives was prepared for ready exchange, we quote the law of Oct. 18, 1648:--

It is ordered, for trial till the next court, that all passable or payable peage henceforth shall be entire, without breaches, both the white and black, without deforming spots, suitably strung in eight known parcels,--one penny, threepence, twelvepence, five shillings, in white; twopence, sixpence, two shillings and sixpence, and ten shillings, in black.

Medford paid its share towards the support of Rev. Messrs. Patricke and Underhill; and, Sept. 7, 1630, “it is ordered that Mr. Patricke and Mr. Underhill shall have allowed them, for half a year's provision, two hogsheads of meal, four bushels of malt, ten pounds of powder, and lead to make shot; also house-room provided for them, and fifteen pounds twelve shillings in money to make other provision from the time they begin to keep house.” These records show how the Pilgrims managed their currency:--

Sir Richard Saltonstall is fined four bushels of malt, for his absence from court.”

Mr. Robert Saltonstall is fined five shillings, for presenting his petition on so small and bad a piece of paper.”

“Chickataubott is fined a skin of a beaver, for shooting a swine of Sir Richard Saltonstall.”

Silver was exceedingly scarce at the time Medford was settled; hence the necessity of adopting some other standards of value. All accounts were kept in the pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings of the mother country. For more than [403] half a century, the law of Oct. 18, 1631, was in active operation here. That law was as follows :--

“It is ordered that corn shall pass for payment of all debts, at the usual rate it is sold for, except money or beaver be expressly named.”

Oct. 3, 1633: “It is agreed that the best sort of laborers shall not take above eighteen-pence a day, if they diet themselves; and not above eightpence a day, if they have diet found them. Further, it is ordered that all workmen shall work the whole day, allowing convenient tine for food and rest.”

Nov. 8, 1633 : “Ordered that no persons shall sell to any of the inhabitants within this jurisdiction any provision, clothing, tools, or other commodities, above the rate of fourpence in a shilling more than the same cost, or might be bought for ready money, in England.”

Sept. 3, 1634: “No person that keeps an ordinary shall take above sixpence a meal for a person; and not above one penny for an ale-quart of beer, out of meal-time.”

March 4, 1635: “Ordered that musket-bullets, of a full bore, shall pass currently for a farthing apiece, provided that no man be compelled to take above twelvepence at a time of them.”

The legal premium allowed for the loan of currency was eight per cent, and so continued for a short time after the second charter. These facts and laws reveal to us the everyday calculations, and many of the social habits, of our Medford ancestors; and, in the absence of town-records, serve as authentic data from which we can write the history of their cares and labors, their sacrifices and prosperity. They found it difficult to pay the wages of their workmen and servants. Even such men as Governor Winthrop were hard pressed in this way. He illustrates the severities of the common lot in these words:--

I may report a passage between one Rowley and his servant. The master, being forced to sell a pair of his oxen to pay his servant his wages, told his servant he could keep him no longer, not knowing how to pay him next year. The servant answered him, he could serve him for more of his cattle. But what shall I do (saith the master) when all my cattle are gone? The servant replied, “ You shall then serve me; and so you may have your cattle again.”

It was natural enough that such extremities as these should awaken the public mind to some modes of permanent relief; and they did suggest the establishment of a mint at Boston. May 31, 1652: The General Court ordered, that, “from and [404] after the 1st of September next, and no longer, the money hereafter appointed and expressed shall be the current money of this Commonwealth, and no other, unless English (except the receivers consent thereunto).” Thus 1652 saw our fathers coining money without the consent of the king, to whom alone belonged the constitutional right of so doing.

The building erected for the mint was sixteen feet square and ten feet high. Such an edifice surely could not deserve the sneer of that adage, “Twelve pence laid out on the purse, and only six in it.”

One effect of introducing a New-England coinage was to change the custom of computing in Old-England currency; for, in the London market, the American coin sank at a rate of one-quarter below theirs.

The device on the die was as follows: “A double ring on either side, with this inscription, Massachusetts, and a tree in the centre, on the one side; and New England, and the year of our Lord, on the other side.” This was called the “pine-tree currency;” and it was in use for more than a hundred years. The pine-tree was a favorite emblem with our fathers. It expressed to them something un-English, and something durable. When independence was declared, Massachusetts (April 11, 1776) put it on her State flag, and fought the battle of Bunker Hill under its ancestral encouragements. It gave place only to the thirteen stripes.

When Thomas Temple, Esq., went to London, in May, 1662, and was introduced to the king, he presented his majesty with specimens of our coins. Seeing a tree on one of them, Charles inquired, “What sort of a tree is that?” Mr. Temple immediately replied, “It is the royal oak, which preserved your majesty's life.” The answer conciliated the unbotanical king, and induced him to grant Mr. Temple what he asked.

The mint was suppressed by James II.; and thereupon, in 1686, our Massachusetts patriots began to move in the establishment of a bank; and, on Sept. 18 of that year, President Dudley and council granted liberty to certain directors “to issue bills, on security of real and personal estate.” These continued but three years. Dec. 10, 1690, the General Court established a provincial bank, and issued paper-money to the amount of seven thousand pounds, in bills from five shillings to five pounds. This paper-currency continued in use till 1750. These paper-bills, soon after their [405] issue, fell in value at least one-third. The government tried to remedy this evil by allowing five per cent advance on the specie and par value of the bills in all public payments. This restored them to par for about twenty years. They were called “old charter bills.” June 8, 1693, the General Court changed the rate of interest from eight per cent to six.

So common had become the vicious habit of clipping gold and silver money, that the government issued a proclamation, March 3, 1705, “that no money shall past by tale but what is of due weight.” Almost every family had a pair of scales to weigh the gold and silver they took.

The two crusades against Canada, about this time, forced the colonies to issue “bills of credit,” to pay the soldiers. These lost credit, and somewhat depreciated; and here was another embarrassment suffered by our fathers. December, 1724, Judge Sewall says, “The diminution of the value of the bills of public credit is the cause of much oppression in the Province.” Colden says (1728), “Our paper-currency has gradually lost its credit, so as at present sixteen shillings is but sufficient to purchase an ounce of silver.” Governor Belcher says (1733), “Sixteen shillings in these bills will not purchase five shillings lawful money.”

Lawful money, as distinguished from old tenor, is first mentioned in the Medford records, May 17, 1750. The town voted, May 21, 1751, to give Mr. Turell, as salary for that year, £ 73. 6s. 8d. (lawful money), which was equal to £ 550 (old tenor). In 1754, voted to give him £ 80 (lawful money), which was equal to £ 600 (old tenor).

In 1761, £ 10 were equal to £ 75 old tenor, £ 24 to £ 180, and £ 80 to £ 600.

It is not easy, in our day of plenty and power, to estimate those perplexities and fears of our fathers which came from an empty treasury, a defenceless country, and an embarrassed trade. To show how very slowly they must have gathered money, we give a table of prices of such productions as were taken for rates at the treasury. Good merchantable beef, £ 3 a barrel; do. pork, £ 5. 10s.; winter wheat, 8s.; summer, 7s.; barley, 6s.; rye, 6s.; Indian corn, 4s.; oats, 2s. 6d. a bushel. Flax, 1s. 4d.; hemp, 9d.; beeswax, 2s. 6d. a pound. Peas, clear of bugs, 9s. a bushel. Sweet firkin butter, 12d. a pound. Merchantable dry codfish, £ 1. 10s. a quintal. Mackerel, £ 1. 10s.; oil, £ 2. 10s. a barrel. Whalebone, six [406] feet long and upward, 3s. 6d.; bayberry-wax, 1s. 4d. a pound. Turpentine, full bound, 13s.; merchantable bar-iron, 48s.; cast-iron pots and kettles, 48s. a hundred. Well-cured tobacco, 4d.; good tried tallow, 8d. a pound.

We can but faintly conceive the embarrassments which our ancestors here must have encountered from the fluctuating prices of their products; especially when, as in 1740, there were circulating in Massachusetts public bills of four provinces, at 29s. for an ounce of silver. New tenor of Massachusetts at 6s. 8d., but current at 9s. 8d. oz. of silver. Connecticut new tenor at 8s., and Rhode Island new tenor at 6s. 9d. Our fathers, under these circumstances, must have been good mathematicians to have understood this occult chemistry of trade.

July 30, 1781: Medford voted “to raise £ 100 in specie, in lieu of the £ 400 raised on the 29th of June last.” This would seem to imply that £ 100 specie was worth £ 400 of New-England money. Aug. 20, 1781: “Voted to raise £ 450 hard money, instead of the £ 1,300 paper money, voted in May last.”

It is not necessary to trace further the currency of the Province, or to show the effects of the issue of “continental money,” or the “sword-in-hand” money, of 1775, or the influence of the Stamp Act, and the subsequent oppressions of the crown upon the trade, comfort, or hopes of our fathers. The currency of the country, from its settlement to the present time, pertains as much to the town of Medford as to any other town. It makes part and parcel of its history. It influenced every family's labor, and shaped the town's laws. May 12, 1791, the town voted to sell the “old continental money” then in the treasury for the most they could get for it. We have given these details, that our readers may see how the fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters, of the olden time were obliged to think, calculate, and act, in their pecuniary intercourse with their neighbors and public functionaries. Trading and shopping then were very different operations from what they are now. The word pay was used to denote whatever was employed as currency or medium of exchange. Suppose a farmer went to buy a pair of oxen, how would the colloquy proceed? Somewhat thus:--Neighbor A.: “I want to buy your two-year-old steers: what do you ask for them?” “I will sell; but what's your pay?” Answer: “Flax at 1s. 4d., butter at 12d., winter wheat at 8s., [407] and the rest in paper at 17s. per ounce of silver.” This is satisfactory; and so they trade. A dialogue between two merchants, in the purchase of a ship, would be something like this:--Mr. S.: “What will you take for your bark Columbus?” Mr. T.: “You know that depends on the pay.” Mr. S.: “My pay is, double-johns at £ 4. 16s., moidores at 36s., pistoles at 22s., the rest in old-tenor bills at the rate of 45s. for 6s. of specie, and middle tenors at 11s. 3d. for 6s.”

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