Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill introduces us to mid-eighteenth century New York City through the eyes of a London visitor named Richard Smith. For Smith, it’s a strange place. In the book’s first scene, as Tom discussed yesterday, he exchanges some of his own currency for local money. But he is baffled to receive an irregular stack of paper from around the continent divided into various denominations.
I immediately empathized. Only a few days before I began the novel, I had been trying to untangle what I had initially thought would be a fairly straightforward problem for an article manuscript involving colonial wage rates and commodity prices. But I had quickly found myself waist-deep in conversion charts, glossaries, and historical data about the foreign, colonial, and metropolitan currencies that circulated in eighteenth-century Anglo-America. Old tenor, new tenor, pounds, shillings, pence, halfjoes, Spanish dollars—it was a world of currency only slightly less confusing than blockchain. Continue reading