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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Regency Habits of Economy

     Farthing, guinea, crown, shilling and pence. To an American, the monetary system of 1800's England can seem a foreign language.  But a Regency housewife--a responsible, frugal housewife--had to know where the pennies went and how to keep household accounts.
     Maria Rundell in her book Domestic Cookery notes, "Instances may be found of ladies in the higher walks of life, who condescend to examine the accounts of their house steward; and by overlooking and wisely directing the expenditure of that part of their husband's income which falls under their own inspection, avoid the inconvenience of embarrassed circumstances." She goes on to state that a "great readiness at figures" is one of the most useful things a woman can know.

     So what did a woman know about money?
     The basic values were known by everyone, and included:
·         Half-farthing - eighth of a penny
·         Farthing - quarter of a penny (4 farthings to a penny)
·         Halfpenny (or haypence) - half of a penny, or 2 farthings
·         Penny (or pence) - twelfth of a shilling
·         Shilling (or Bob) - 12 pence, or one twentieth of a pound
·         Half-crown - 2 shillings, 6 pence
·         Crown - 5 shillings (60 pennies)
·         Pound (quid, or sovereign) - 20 shillings (240 pennies)
·         Guinea - 21 shillings (252 pennies)

     Gold coins had values of five guineas, sovereign, two guineas, guinea, and half-guinea, but gold was also in shortage and so there were not many of these coins minted in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Silver coins values were crown, shilling, sixpence, fourpence, threepence, twopence, and penny. Copper coins included the halfpenny and farthing.
     When noting expenditures pence would be marked as "d" for denarius or denarii from the Latin, and shillings written as "s" for solidus. Denarius has been a small value Roman coin, and twelve denarii made up one solidus. Solidus is also the name of the slash used in fractions, and so "/" was also used to mark shillings. The pound symbol '£' also came from the Latin word libra for pound. So six shillings could be marked as 6s or 6/ and six shillings and two pence could be 6s2d or 6/2.
     About now the American system of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars begins to seem wonderfully simple by comparison.
     Paper money existed in the 1800's as Bank Notes, but many preferred to deal with coins for the amount of copper, silver or gold minted equaled the face value. You actually had a guinea's worth of gold in your hand, a concept lost in our modern world in which coins are made of alloys.

     Today we regard ten pounds as pocket change, but in the 1800's that sum could be a year's wages. What £10 bought in 1800 would have cost £395.39 in 2002 (conversion from Economic History Resource.)
     Rapid inflation until 1812 also had prices rising drastically in England, but wages remained low. The cost of wheat alone went up from between 47/ to 54/ a quarter in the early 1790's to between 114/ to 160/ by 1800. England's population was also moving from the country, where food could be grown and household items made, to cities, where everything had to be bought.  As noted by Reay Tannahill in Food in History, "In 1800 Manchester had 75,000 inhabitants; fifty years later, 400,000....The number of people living in London multiplied by four in just over a century."
     A woman in 'embarrassed circumstances' might well have to focus only on how to stretch her pence for food. In the city she would have to buy meat scraps rather than full roasts. There would be no funds for luxuries such as butter. The cheapest bread would be coarse, adulterated with alum, which cost less than flour. She might be able to afford wool for knitting gloves and scarves and undergarments, and fabric to make clothes, or she might have to make do with purchasing used clothing from a street fair. Feathers to go inside pillows would come from the ducks and chickens she bought and plucked, if she could afford the luxury of a whole hen. Shoes would need to be bought, and tinkers paid to mend pots and sharpen knives. With the added expense of rent, anything such as costly tea would be a luxury, as would any servants or services.
     In the middle class, a woman could count on more luxuries. She would have staff to do the work, and could afford beeswax candles that did not drip (or smell of beef fat), and fine milled soap.  There would be funds for silk shoes at 10/, sarsnet for gowns at 7/ a yard, and a fancy cap for a pound and six. Entertainment could be had: 10/6 for the rent of an opera box, 5/ for a concert ticket, another 10/6 for a book seller subscription, and 2 guineas for ball subscriptions in Bath.
     Of course, there would also be the washer woman to pay, school fees for her children, coal and wood to buy to heat her house, servant's wages, money for charity, and coins to hand out as tips when she visited.
     For a woman of great income, all this jotting down of expenditures could be left to a house steward, a secretary, or a housekeeper. A woman with a rich family or husband might not even handle any money for items could be purchased on account, and bills would be sent to the father or family. However, there are numerous stories of servants who filled their pockets by padding the household account books, writing in more than was paid to the merchants and keeping the difference.
      Women could also loose fortunes at the gaming table. Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, died with well over ten thousand pounds of gambling debt, which would have ruined a lesser family than the powerful Cavendish clan.

     Of course other costs could ruin a family. Coming of age parties might cost from £300 to £6,000. Board and tuition at Eton or Harrow cost between £175 to £250 a year. While a London season would demand at least £1,000 to rent a house in Mayfair and then another ten thousand or more for food, drink, a suitable wardrobe and parties.
With such budgets to handle, launching your children into the world could be rather like managing a small corporation. No wonder parents expected such investments would pay off with alliances that brought influence and money back into the family. No wonder, too, at the appeal of living quietly in the country where such demands were not made upon the purse.

In the country, a large estate was expected to produce. This mean not just income from farms let to tenants, but milk, butter and cream from a dairy, ale from the ale house, fruits and vegetables from gardens and hot houses, herbs from a kitchen or herb garden, meat from pigs, beef, pigeons in the dovecotes, eggs and meat from chickens, wild game from the woods, fish from the local streams, and even wool for weaving fabrics. All of this, of course, takes a huge staff for management, but it means that an estate could provide for itself.
The lady of the estate would be expected to know how to use her still room to dry herbs, create ointments, cures, cleansers, and more. These recipes were often included in the very popular cookbooks of the era.

A smaller manor might lack extravagant lands for hunting, but even a few acres provides land for farming, growing, and raising live stock. The smaller manor would also have staff to handle these outside chores: a groom, a gardener, a cook, and so on.
Produce from an estate also provides goods that can be sold, allowing for the purchase of luxury items such as chocolate, sugar, tea and coffee (all imports).
In this era when we purchase so much of what we need, we have to stop and remember this is a modern habit. Two hundred years ago the habit was really to grow and make what was needed. To mend and reuse. At one time, only the very rich could waste money on spending for every whim.

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