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The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 29, July 19, 2015, Article 21

GOLD COIN USE IN THE EAST IN 1896

Dave Ginsburg submitted this article on gold coin use in the eastern United States in 1896. Thanks! -Editor

In my continuing quest to gather contemporary references regarding the use of gold coins in commerce, I recently became acquainted with The North American Review, which, in its December 1896 edition featured two articles regarding the current state of money in the United States, an issue that had featured prominently in the national election of the previous month.

The first is “Has the Election Settled the Money Question?” by Williams Jennings Bryan, who had just lost the election in the first of his three attempts, as the Democratic candidate, to become President of the United States.

His article in favor of bimetallism and the “free” (unlimited by statute) minting of silver coins was rebutted by a three-part article, “Reform of the Currency.” The first part was by the president of the Indianapolis Board of Trade, the second by the president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce; and, the third part was written by Hugh Craig, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

As a Californian, Mr. Craig would have been accustomed to the daily use of gold coins in commerce, as Californians refused to use Greenbacks when they were introduced in 1862 and resisted the use of federal currency (even after convertibility into gold was enacted into law as of January 1879) until the US Treasury restricted the use of gold coins in commerce during World War I.

Mr. Craig writes:

I have been amused greatly at the way in which Eastern people talk of “solid” money, considering how little they make use of it, preferring, apparently, fiat paper.

A neighbor of mine tells me of a Californian not very long ago entering a shoe-store in New York and purchasing a pair of slippers. The price was seventy-five cents. He handed the clerk a twenty-dollar gold piece, and noticed the typewriter [the person who did the typewriting], the accountant, the salesman, and the “boss” with their heads together. After consultation the clerk approached the Western man, handed him the twenty-dollar gold piece, and took back the slippers! They were positively afraid to give the change, fearing that the coin was “bogus.”

The same thing happened six months ago in a hat store in Philadelphia, where one of my neighbors tendered a twenty-dollar gold piece in payment of a two-and-a-half-dollar hat. The clerk returned from the cashier’s desk and said that “they did not have the change until the proprietor returned from his lunch.”

In November last, the writer was a delegate from the Chamber of Commerce of this city to a convention of Ship Owners and the National Grange, at Worcester, Mass. My hotel bill was sixteen dollars; I laid on the counter a twenty-dollar gold piece, which the clerk first tried with his teeth, then rang on a glass-plate, and said: “You are from California, sir, are you not?” To which I relied in the affirmative.

“This is gold?”
“Certainly,” I said.

By this time there had gathered around me not less than half a dozen men, who, by their looks of interest, had never before, apparently, seen a twenty-dollar gold piece. The change handed to me was soiled, dirty paper, instead of clean, white silver.

Now, clearly Mr. Craig is trying to make a point, and, I have had an interesting interaction or two with a New York City deli cashier when I’ve offered to pay for my $8 lunch with a $100 bill, so it would have been interesting to see how the New York shoe store and the Philadelphia hat store would have reacted to a half eagle instead of a double eagle. However, I think Mr. Craig neatly captures the contemporary attitudes of the two coasts: one that used gold coins in daily commerce and one that, apparently, did not.

The issues of The North American Review, along with many other interesting 19th century periodicals and books, are available in the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library’s website.

To read the December 1896 issue of The North American Review, see: http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nora;cc=nora;view=toc;subview=short;idno=nora0163-6

For a discussion of how Californians reacted to the introduction of Greenbacks, see: 1) “Legal Tender Notes in California” in the October 1892 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, which has been made available by JSTOR’s Early Journal Content program: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1883758?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents and Chapter Four of The Treasure Ship S.S. Brother Jonathan by Q. David Bowers.

Wayne Homren, Editor

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