You could sail this puppy away TODAY, for just 7300 pieces of eight. How does that sound to you?
September 23, 2009 5:32 AM   Subscribe

What could one piece of eight have purchased in Boston in 1777?
posted by aiko to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A piece of eight was roughly equivalent to a dollar until the Coinage Act of 1792. Using that rubric, here is a calculator that translates it into modern currency.

Exactly what that would buy, I can't really help you (someone else probably can). The fact that you're talking about silver specie helps-- paper money, which was more or less unregulated, fluctuated like crazy in this time period.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2009

Sorry, that second URL doesn't really work. Here.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:45 AM on September 23, 2009

Interesting question. The answer takes a different path than one might think, since (from

"In the eighteenth century, the value of a coin was not determined by its face value, but by its weight in gold or silver."

This was well before we moved off of the concept of currency being backed (or even being *made* of) by precious metals, so the question isn't actually about currency rates, it's about metal value.

So, from wikipedia:

"An eight-real coin [a "piece of eight"] nominally weighed 550.209 Spanish grains, which is 423.900 troy/avoirdupois grains (0.883125 troy ounce or 27.468 grams), .93055 fine: so contained 0.821791 troy ounce (25.560 grams) fine silver"

As for the price of silver itself, the only chart I've found (in my admittedly limited google attempt) only goes back to 1792, but the prices are very consistent through 1861, so I hope it's not too much of a stretch to guess that the 1777 value was at least similar to the 1792 value, which was 1.293 USD per ounce. (NB: a "troy ounce", as referenced by wikipedia, is a specific weight used to reference precious metals, and is still used today, as far as I can tell.)

I have to go to work, so I've run out of time, but the next step would be to determine the costs of living in 1777, and then look up the prices of goods, then you'll know how much $1.06 (the actual value of the silver, based on the .88 ounces that the coins weighed) could buy in 1777. (Probably more than I suspect).

It may be interesting to note that from 1665 to 1776, inflation didn't exist, so an offhand response to "how much does this silver coin buy me" in 1777 could have been "less than it did last year."
posted by crickets at 6:53 AM on September 23, 2009

Ok, my calculations, based on this, assuming by 'pieces of eight' you mean Spanish dollars, using the chart on this page There's a chart about 1/3 down the page that shows the accepted rate in 1771. Apparently a Spanish dollar was worth 7s. in New York but only 6s. in Connecticut (things have always been expensive here.) Each s. is about $5.30 in late 90s-early 2000s money. So we're looking at maybe about $35 or $40?

As for purchasing power, what I wanted to find, but can't right now, are detailed probate records from that period. I think I have some at home, but maybe someone else can find them in the 10 hours of so before I can get a hold of them. (A probate record, in this context, is a post-mortem assessment of valuables in someone's estate.)
posted by cobaltnine at 7:02 AM on September 23, 2009

I am not your Colonial Era American Historian, but, assuming crickets is correct in the estimation of $1.06 and looking at :

Derks, Scott and Tony Smith. The value of a Dollar : Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865. Millerton, NY: Grey House, 2005.

we see that a dollar (assuming I am reading the charts correctly (and this gets a little weird, since, in 1777, there seem to have been competing local currencies as well as a national currency and British currency)) would buy about half a hundredweight of codfish (Boston), about 8 lbs coffee (Boston), about 3 lb cotton (Boston), about 2 gallons of gin (Philadelphia, sorry, no Boston data, but I figured MeFites would sit up and notice), and about 4 gallons of molasses (Boston again). That price list is from 1775, and inflation seems to have been pretty steep, so maybe a bit less.

Interestingly, that $1 would get you roughly 3 gallons of rum, which seems cheap, considering that the raw material is scarcely less expensive. Maybe there was some amazing mark up for retail molasses. (A complaint of the Crown just before the Revolution was that roughly 90% of the molasses in the Colonies was smuggled, much of it in the Rhode Island/Boston area, so...)
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:57 AM on September 23, 2009

> It may be interesting to note that from 1665 to 1776, inflation didn't exist

> That price list is from 1775, and inflation seems to have been pretty steep

Can anyone resolve this striking contradiction?
posted by languagehat at 10:39 AM on September 23, 2009

Can anyone resolve this striking contradiction?

The book I used shows declining buying power (of British currency) all through the 1770s.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the presence of local currencies, which had extremely variable values vs British currency (which seems to have been more stable (being mostly coinage), but too scarce in the Colonies to provide support for the growing economy). The Revolutionary Government also printed loads of bills which declined in value rather quickly, purchasing what looks like about 1/6 of the value of hard currency. It is possible, I suppose, to get "no inflation" when considering hard currency only, but it seems pretty clear that paper money underwent all sorts of fluctuations in value, generally downward, and also drove much of the economy at the time.

Again, I am no American Colonial Historian, so perhaps there is some element in here I am not seeing, but I would favor inflation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:46 AM on September 23, 2009

Building off of cobaltnine's coin rating table, I found a chart in a 1777 almanac that lists the value of a piece of eight as 6s in Massachusetts.

I also found a Massachusetts document entitled "An Act to Prevent Monopoly and Oppression" from 1777 -- as well as a local addendum by the "Select-Men and Committee of Correspondence" of Boston -- that establishes the maximum prices for a number of goods and services within the state/city.

At the maximum prices established by that act, 6s could have gotten you nine pounds of cheese, three pounds of wholesale chocolate, six gallons of vinegar, or three bushels of carrots.

They don't divide as nicely, but you could also get 1.6 gallons of molasses ("of the best quality"), 3.6 pounds of coffee, 1.7 pounds of cotton, .75 gallons of West India rum, or 1.4 gallons of New England rum. Oddly, these numbers seem to be roughly half as large as the corresponding figures in GenjiandProust's book. I'm not sure why.

Thanks for the help!
posted by aiko at 10:43 PM on September 23, 2009

I have two potential answers:

1. I was reading the charts wrong or the book was wrong (I'd favor the first).

2. Inflation was that bad, and prices doubled between 1775 and 17777. Not necessarily unreasonable during a war.

I briefly thought that the problems was comparing prices in different currency. In 1777, if I recall correctly, Boston was under complete British control, and you seem to have prices in British coinage, which would be more valuable than the local script. However, my charts have that script with almost double the value of your information, when it should be the other way around. So, "translation error yes," but in the wrong direction. So... this shouldn't be the answer.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:50 AM on September 24, 2009

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