Quid Pro Quo - It's a Question of Money

I came across this old election poster from the mid-1950's lately. I was born in 1956, so it resonated a bit. Political comparisons aside, I had totally forgotten how the 'old prices' were written and this poster, with it's comparison chart of commonly purchased items brought back floods of childhood memories to me.

For instance the 1954 price tag of 2/4 for Cigarettes meant that 20 cigarettes cost 2 shillings and 4 pennies or 2s & 4d, or about 12 decimal pence (The Punt became Irish currency on 'Decimalisation Day or D-Day', 15 February 1971), or about 14 new cents/euro (Euro conversion day 1 January 2002). And the 1954 price of 3/9 for Petrol meant that a gallon of petrol (gas) cost 3s & 9d, or 3 shillings and 9 pennies or about 18 decimal pence/(Punt) or 21 cents/(Euro) for a gallon. 'Course, that would be an imperial gallon, not a US gallon. I'm aftaid your ten gallon hat would only hold about 8 real gallons and as for miles per gallon, or MPG, well are we talking a US mile, a statute mile, or an Irish mile?

Confused yet? You should have lived through all three currencies, as I did. But honestly, it was fun and anyway, we never had much money. If you could jingle a few coins in your pocket, anything was possible. We used to get a great giggle out of the confusion our American visitors had with our currency. They were completely at sea when it came to using our money. Their's was simplicity itself, a dollar was 100 cents, and there were only 4 coins, penny/cent, 5 cent, 10 cent and 25 cent in common use (dollar and half-dollar aside). Our currency was quite a bit different.

Just so you know, there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 Shillings in a Pound. There were 144 pennies (coppers), or 288 half-pennies (Ha'pennies), or 576 quarter-pennies (Farthings) in a Pound. To compound matters, there were 48 Three-penny coins (Truppenny-bit), or 40 Six-penny bits coins (Tanner), or 20 Shillings (Bob), or 10 Two-Shilling coins (Florins), or 8 Half-crowns (two-and-six), or 2 Ten-Shilling notes, in a Pound. The slang words were in common usage, so one had to know every term for each coin, or be conned or worse in any transaction.

Worse still, if you went to an auction, say to buy a house, or a painting or an antique, they calculated the prices in Guineas, not Pounds! A guinea was worth 21 shillings. Then there was the Sovereign, a one pound coin, made of solid gold, so it was always worth much more then one pound (£!), and is the favoured token of money at a wedding. Finally, a pound, was also more commonly known as a 'Quid', or short for 'quid pro quo', the Latin for 'something for something else'.

Pound (£) was not to be confused with Pound (lb) the measure of weight, in which there were 16 ounces (oz). It's no wonder the older folks were brilliant at mental math! Scrambling in your purse or rummaging through a pants pocket to make change for a purchase was akin to taking a math exam. Not to mention what the shop-keepers did, when giving change, or calculating the price of a bundle of disparate items in a shopping basket!

Pencils and brown paper bags were the computer/calculators of the day and don't get me started on the butcher's or grocer's scales, for weighing meat or loose potatoes (nothing was pre-packaged) and then calculating how much the purchase would cost, had to be done before rooting in the pocket for change. For instance, if a stone of potatoes was priced at 2/9 and you wanted to buy 8lbs 13oz of spuds, how much would you be charged? Would you have enough money in your hand, or would you have to leave back a few taties 'cause you were a few 'd' short. There were no ATM's then, or credit cards. 'Course you could put the purchase on your 'tab', the be entered into the big 'debtors ledger' in long-hand script by the shop clerk after you'd left, to be 'settled up' on another day.

Each summer, from when I was about 12 years old, I would help out my aunt and uncle Maura and Padraic Brody in what had been my grand-fathers general store in Killimor, County Galway, or another aunt and uncle Anna and Tom Nolan, in their grocery and souvenir shop in Kilkee, County Clare. I would also help out yet another aunt and uncle team, Josephine and Michael Bourke, weighing potatoes into half-stone (8lb) and 4 lb bags, for the tourists in Kilkee. It was great experience and great fun. I always had pocket-money, and in those days, as you could imagine, your pocket bulged, with even a little money and a little money went a long way.

Money was a physical thing back then. people spoke of 'the heft of a fiver' in your pocket. It would bring you a long way, if you could lift it! Money weighed pounds (pun intended) and it was never so apparent to me as when we were set by dad to counting the church-gate collections for the many charities my dad was involved in. It was always a sight to behold. The kitchen table would be cleared and the money from the collection turned out onto the red formica surface, to be sorted and counted and bagged for lodgment in the bank. It took ages, but it was expected of us kids, to help out, but then there was always the added bonus of picking out and keeping the foreign coins from the pile, for our coin collections, for cataloging or swapping later with our friends. (don't get me started on stamp collecting and the black-babies).

Later on, stints of bar-assistant at the weekends in O'Malleys 'Cozy Bar' in Loughrea, or my sister's bar 'the Kincora' in Salthill, took me through college, always handling the money, scrunched-up notes and chunks of coin, making change, and all in my head. I'm sure I made mistakes, but hey, no one seemed to notice! Can you blame them? The old people were bemused, the young folks just took 'change' in their stride. Money was money. I worked through all three currencies and can only say it was 'interesting'. That and playing 301 in darts kept your mental mind active.Mental math was a challenge back then, but we managed. Nowadays, we just swipe our card and hey presto, your account has been charged.                                                                                                                            

So, my history question today is 'Why were old pennies denoted as 'd', when it logically could have been 'p'?' And yes, you can comment on politics and the price of sugar too, if you wish. You can hear stories like these, and interact if you wish, at one of my Fireside Tours at O'Connors Famous Pub in Salthill, Galway, any evening at 6pm, during July.

Note; (Election photo courtesy of Friends of Ireland. Fireside, courtesy O'Connors Pub )

Brian Nolan - Galway Walks - Walking Tours of Galway - www.GalwayWalks.com

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Tags: Living History, clare, coppers, economy, euro, galway, half-crown, kilkee, killimor, money, More…pound, punt, shillings, spuds, tanner

Comment by P.J. Francis on June 13, 2014 at 1:42pm

A butterscotch penny bar really did cost 1d at Tom Green's shop in Ballyvaughan, County Clare in 1960.

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on June 13, 2014 at 11:50pm

In hindsight, what a crazy system. Here in New Zealand, this was booted for touch in favor of decimal currency 10 July 1967.  As for the "d" for the penny, I was told it was for "denari", a common Roman coin. 

Comment by DJ Kelly on June 14, 2014 at 12:41am

Ah, the age of confusion. Patrick is right, the 'd' stood for denari. The £ symbol for the pound was originally an 'L' and was from the Latin 'Libra'. Then came the 60's, and LSD took on another meaning, though none of us can quite remember what it was.

A similar state of confusion did exist in England too, though. Between the two world wars (or, as they say in Ireland, the war and the 'state of emergency'), measurements varied from one county to another.

Standard measures, as used by farmers, shopkeepers and delivery men, were far from standard. A stone of meat in Buckinghamshire was 14lbs (pounds) but a stone of meat in Sussex was only 8 lbs; a forest acre was nine score rods but a statute acre was 8 score rods, while a short acre was 6 score rods in some counties but only 5 score rods in others. Rods, poles and perches were a form of distance measurement which were a mystery to school children of my era, but which nonetheless were still printed on the back of our standard school exercise books.

Decimal currency was introduced here in 1971. The new penny caused great confusion, as nobody really knew what to call it. Its title varied from 'one new penny' through 'a one new pence piece' to 'one pee' and variations thereof. 'Twopence' disappeared in favour of 'two new pence'  or 'two pee', and thruppence (trupence in Ireland) became 'three pee' etc. It was always the cause of some hilarity when a shop assistant would ask 'do you have two pee?' ('No, thanks, I went before I left home' was the standard reply).

Of course decimalisation brought instant price inflation, so nobody wanted to call the new coin 'a penny' because its buying power was less than that of the old penny. The change hit the old folks hardest, especially as the new halfpenny (no longer called a ha'penny but 'a half a one new pee' etc. ), resembled the farthing of their day.

Comment by Brian Nolan on June 14, 2014 at 4:46am

It is hard to imagine that we used three separate currencies in Ireland between 1971 and 2001. Is it any wonder that we sometimes know the price of everything and the value of nothing! Thanks for the comments D J Frances, Patrick Dead,. D J Kelly...glad you enjoyed the post.

Comment by Jim Goulding on June 14, 2014 at 5:33pm

I remember being in Ireland in the early 70's when both English and Irish old coins were used interchangeably and at the same time the new coinage was being introduced. There were more than 15 coins being accepted at the time. The store window signs often showed prices in both new and old currency. While there, I received word that a family friend had died back in New York, so I went to send the traditional telegram but it was a Sunday and the telegraph offices were closed. I was told that one could send a telegram by phoning up the operator and paying with coins on the phone box. After a trip around town to get the proper coins I phoned the operator, dictated the telegram text and deposited the appropriate number of coins into the box. Needless to say, the telegram was never delivered in NY and I lost all those coins!!

Comment by Brian Nolan on June 15, 2014 at 1:10pm

I haven't heard the word 'telegram' in ages either...15 coins in circulation...amazing...and yet we persevered and now have a brand new currency, which we are actively speaking of eliminating the copper coins on...1 and 2 cents pieces.

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