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