Currency, Exchange Rates & Costs in the 19th Century
What currency was used in France, the United States, and Britain in the early 19th century? What were the historical exchange rates? How much did things cost? Since Napoleon in America occasionally mentions financial transactions, these were questions I had to look into when writing the novel. Here’s what I found out.
Currency in 19th-century France
There were two types of money circulating in France in the early 19th century: remnants of pre-Revolutionary currency based on the livre as the unit of account; and new currency based on the decimal franc, which was introduced in 1795 by the French Revolutionary Convention. After Napoleon came to power, he dropped the revolutionary symbols on the coins and replaced them with his own image. The new currency was retained when the Bourbons returned to power in 1814 and 1815, with the image of Louis XVIII, and later of Charles X, used instead of Napoleon’s. A guide published in 1826 noted that “the monies of the empire and of the kingdom pass indiscriminately.” (1)
The basic units of pre-Revolutionary French currency were as follows:
1 Louis d’Or (“Or” means gold in French, so this was a gold coin, or a “golden Louis”) = 24 livres
1 écu = 6 livres
1 livre = 20 sous. The livre was not actually minted as a coin after 1720, but continued to be used as a unit of account. Assignats, a type of paper money issued during the French Revolution, were denominated in livres.
1 sou (or sol) = 12 deniers
1 liard = 3 deniers. There was no 1 denier coin.
The units of Post-Revolutionary currency were:
1 Napoléon d’Or = 20 francs
1 franc = 100 centimes.
The franc was generally equivalent in value to the livre. The words were often used interchangeably. Thus converting between the two systems was straightforward.
1 franc = 1 livre
100 centimes = 20 sous
5 centimes = 1 sou
As for how this worked in practice during the Bourbon Restoration, a traveller’s guide to France in 1822 observed:
The current coins of France are
1. (gold) double louis, 47 francs 4 sous; the louis 23 francs 11 sous; the double and single napoleon, or new louis, pieces of 40 and 20 francs, most in use.
2. (silver) the six, five, three, two and one franc piece.
3. (copper) the large or double sou, the sou, and the half and quarter sou, or pieces of two and one liard. There are also ancient pieces, made of mixed or bell-metal, denominated pieces of six liards, value one sou and a half. …
The coins in circulation…are…in silver, pieces of five francs; pieces of two francs; pieces of one franc; pieces of thirty sous, being half of the ecu; pieces of 15 sous, a quarter of the ecus; and half francs and quarter francs, or five sous pieces; in copper, pieces of five centimes…equal to the old sou; and of ten centimes…or one decime, equal to the double sou. (2)
Historical exchange rates for French currency
The rates for converting French currency to British or American currency in the 1820s were as follows:
1 Louis d’Or = 18 shillings 9¾ pence (according to the 1822 traveller’s guide, the Louis could be converted at par, i.e., at 1 pound sterling)
1 Napoléon d’Or = 15 shillings 10 pence
1 franc = 10 pence
25 francs 50 cents = 1 pound sterling
5 francs = 1 US dollar. (3)
Costs in early 19th-century France
What could you buy with a sou, or a franc or a golden Louis in Restoration France? Here are some examples from 1819-20:
- At Beauvais, a large bowl of coffee with as much milk, sugar and toasted bread as you wanted: 5 sous
- A bottle of Burgundy wine at a Paris hotel: 2 francs
- A tip for a meal at a Paris traiteur’s: 3 or 4 sous (the recipient appeared “highly satisfied”)
- A seat in a coach from Paris to Bordeaux: 50 or 60 francs, depending on the quality of the roads and hotels; the latter were included in the price
- At the market in Nice: beef, 5 sous per pound (“but the pound consists only of twelve ounces”); mutton, 6 sous; veal and lamb, 7 sous; a brace of woodcocks: 6 francs; fish, from 6 to 16 sous per pound
- A license to hold a dance that lasted past ten o’clock at a private house in Nice (including a soldier placed at the door): 6 francs
- At Montpellier, ordinary wine of the country (“vin de St. George”) sold from the cask: 5 or 6 sous for a full quart bottle (after bottling and refining, the merchant charged 20 sous for a small wine quart). (4)
These examples are from 1825:
- A dinner in Boulogne “with a great variety of made dishes, a dessert of nuts and fruits, and a bottle of red wine”: 3 francs
- Breakfast at a café or restaurant in Paris: 10-15 sous
- Dinner at the above: 2 francs to 1 Napoléon
- A temporary (10 year) grave at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris: 50 francs
- A perpetual grave at Père Lachaise cemetery: 250 francs per metre
- A carpet from the Royal Manufactory of Carpets (La Savonnerie) near Paris: 60,000 francs (“None but regal feet are allowed to tread them.”)
- Penalty for not attending one’s reserved place at a meeting of the Institut de France in Paris: 10 francs (“It is much the most numerous, grave, and venerable corps of the literati I had ever seen…. A majority of the members are at an advanced age, and some of them tottering under decrepitude.”)
- Wage of a workman manufacturing silk in Lyons: 2 francs a day (“The merchant…buys the raw silk, and gives it out to private families, to be manufactured in small parcels: his profits are immense, and the poor workmen, who are obliged to accept of his own terms or starve, can barely gain a livelihood by incessant toil. It was not uncommon to see the kitchen, bedroom, and manufactory of the miserable tenant crowded into the same little apartment. In one instance we saw twenty bars for winding silk set in motion by one wheel, which was turned like a tread-mill, by an emaciated individual. His servitude is of the most abject and pitiable kind, continuing from 4 o’clock in the morning till 7 in the evening.”) (5)
Currency in the United States in the 19th century
The Coinage Act of 1792 established the United States dollar as the country’s standard unit of money, divided into 100 cents. Coins were minted as follows:
Gold: eagle ($10), half eagle ($5), quarter eagle ($2.50)
Silver: dollar, half dollar (50 cents), quarter (25 cents), dime (10 cents), half dime (5 cents)
Copper: cent and half cent.
According to a visitor in 1819, “[b]esides these, there are in circulation several Spanish coins. The gold coins have, like those of England, almost entirely disappeared. Dollars and half dollars are not very plentiful. All the banks circulate dollar notes.” (6)
Historical exchange rates for US currency
In the 1820s, one US dollar could be exchanged for 4 shillings 6 pence in British sterling, or 5 French francs.
Prior to the American Revolution, each state had used its own currency, or own valuation of currency, and this still lingered in some statements of account, as noted in an 1829 manual of exchange.
The fixed percentage value of each currency, with respect to sterling and the currency value of the dollar are as follows:
New England currency 133 1/3 per cent dollar, 6 shillings
Maryland currency 166 2/3 per cent dollar, 7 shillings 6 pence
New York currency 177 7/9 per cent dollar, 8 shillings
Georgia currency 103 19/21 per cent dollar, 4 shillings 8 pence
The currency of the New England states is the same as the currencies of Vermont, Virginia and Kentucky. That of Maryland as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Of New York, as North Carolina. Of Georgia, as South Carolina. The first currency is to sterling as 3 to 4, the second as 3 to 5, third as 9 to 16, fourth as 27 to 28. (7)
Costs in early 19th-century America
What could you buy with a dollar?
- Room and board at an inn in Albany, New York: $1.50 per day
- Rent for a house and shop in “a good situation” in Albany: $500-$700 per year
- Taxes on the above: $20
- Rent of a small wood house in Albany: $50 to $150 per year
- Farmland within 20 miles of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $80-$100 per acre, buildings included
- Uncleared land in remote parts of Pennsylvania: 50 cents – $20 per acre
- Horse in Pennsylvania: $50-$150
- A saddle: $20 to $150
- Farm wagon in Pennsylvania: $100-$120
- Family wagon in Pennsylvania: $70-$90; with springs: $150
- Annual expense of keeping a family wagon and horse: $50
- Wheat was sold at $1.60 to $2.20 per bushel; Indian corn, 80 to 100 cents; oats, 40 to 55 cents
- Pay of farmhands near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: $14 per month, including board. (“In many instances they expect to sit down with the master, to live as well, and to be upon terms of equality with every branch of the family; and if this should be departed from, the scythe and the sickle will be laid down in the midst of harvest.”)
- Cost to build a brick house, two stories high, containing ten rooms in the countryside near Pittsburgh: $4,000 (“as the bricks can be made upon the land and the ‘help’ boarded in the house”)
- Cost to build a similar house in the city: $6,000, excluding the land. (8)
- Rent for a house in New York: $400-$2,500 per year
- A cord (a heap 8 feet long, 4 feet broad and 4 feet deep) of oak wood for fuel: $5 in the summer, $7 or $8 in the winter
- A cord of hickory: $8 in the summer; $10 or $11 in the winter (“It has been known as high as 30.”)
- Coal (“which is not much used, except in manufactories where it is indispensably necessary”): $12 to $13 per chaldron
- Fare for passage on a steamship from New York to Albany, including bed and board: $7 per person
- Albany ale sold by the brewers: $8 per barrel
- Albany ale sold by the tavern and hotel keepers: $16 per barrel
- Schoolmaster’s salary near Auburn, New York: $20 per month (usually hired for six months in the winter)
- Cost of clearing woodland near Auburn: $14 per acre
- Price of farms in same area: $20 to $30 per acre
- Flour near Buffalo, New York: $9 per barrel of 196 pounds. (9)
- Salary of a teacher of Latin and French in Alabama: $700 per year
- Cloth in Boston: blue cotton, $8 per yard; Waltham shirting, 26 cents per yard; sheetings, 37 per yard
- Slaves in Norfolk, Virginia: $300-$400 each. (10)
- Room and board at a tavern in Utica, New York: $1 per day
- Fine for crossing a bridge across the Mohawk River near Trenton Falls, NY, by horseback or wagon at a pace faster than a walk: $1
- A Bible from the American Bible Society in New York: $1.40
- A deer in Fairfield, Virginia: $1.50
- Pineapples from Cuba in Charleston, South Carolina: 12 and a half cents each, $1 for eight
- Toll to cross a bridge over a brook near Macon, Georgia: 50 cents
- Ticket to a ball at the French theatre in New Orleans: $3
- Admission to a masked ball in New Orleans: $1
- Oranges from Cuba in Mobile, Alabama: 6 cents each
- Recompense (for masters) for each slave punished by order of their master by being incarcerated and employed in servile labours for the city of New Orleans: 25 cents. (11)
Currency in 19th-century Britain
The official currency of the United Kingdom is the pound, also known as pound sterling, or sterling. In the early 19th century, the denominations in use were as follows:
1 guinea = 21 shillings
1 pound sterling = 1 sovereign = 20 shillings
1 half-guinea = 10 shillings and sixpence (i.e. 6 pennies)
1 half-sovereign = 10 shillings
1 crown = 5 shillings
1 half-crown = 2 shillings and sixpence
1 shilling = 12 pence
1 half shilling = 6 pence
1 penny = 2 halfpence
1 halfpenny = 2 farthings
The common symbol for the pound is £. When you read books or letters written in the 19th century or earlier, you will often see the pound abbreviated as a lower-case L (l). Shillings were abbreviated as a lower-case S (s), and pennies (pence) as a lower case D (d). The d was derived from the Ancient Roman denarius, basically the Roman penny. The French denier came from the same word. Thus 2 pounds 3 shillings and sixpence would be written as 2l. 3s. 6d.
The British North American colonies (what is today Canada) used the same currency as Great Britain, but the colonial currency was worth less. 100 pounds sterling would buy slightly over 111 pounds in the colonies.
Historical exchange rates for British currency
The pound was the dominant currency of the period. Here is the basic early 19th-century exchange equation:
1 pound sterling = 25 francs 50 cents (just think of it as 25 francs) = US$4.56
Costs in early 19th-century Britain
Rather than create another list, I am going to refer you to an article by James Heldman, called “How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice” (Persuasions #12, 1990, pp. 38-49). Heldman takes an interesting look at British incomes and costs in the early 19th century.
Comparing historical currencies to modern currencies
Determining how much a given amount of currency in the early 1800s would be equal to today is complicated. One has to adjust for inflation, for changes in relative prices, and for substitutions. As Heldman points out, it’s really hard to know how far money used to go. He found that fabric and clothing appear to have been more expensive in Jane Austen’s time than today, while food appears to have been less expensive.
The UK National Archives has a currency converter on its website that enables you to roughly calculate the purchasing power of the pound in any year from 1270-2017. According to this, 1 pound sterling in 1820 was worth approximately 57.43 pounds sterling in 2017. With 10 pounds sterling in 1820, you would have been able to buy 2 cows, or 11 stones of wool, or 1 quarter of wheat. It would have taken a skilled tradesman 66 days to earn this amount.
MeasuringWorth.com provides a calculator for converting US dollar values from 1790 or later to a more recent year. As the site notes, there are seven different ways of doing this. Depending on the method used, the relative value of $1.00 in 1820 ranges from $22.50 to $30,200 in 2019.
Have fun playing with these. You might also enjoy:
- David Steel, The Ship-Master’s Assistant and Owner’s Manual, 17th edition (London, 1826), p. 137.
- Galignani’s Traveller’s Guide Through France (Paris, 1822), p. xxxviii.
- Unless otherwise noted, the exchange rates listed in this article come from Steel, op. cit., and William Tate, A Manual of Exchanges (London, 1829).
- Examples taken from James Holman, The Narrative of a Journey Undertaken in the Years 1819, 1820, & 1821 (London, 1822).
- Examples and quotes taken from N.H. Carter, Letters from Europe, Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Switzerland, in the Years 1825, 26 and 27, Vol. I (New York, 1827).
- William Dalton, Travels in the United States of America, and Part of Upper Canada (Appleby-in-Westmorland, UK, 1821), p. 11.
- Tate, A Manual of Exchanges, p. 68.
- Examples taken from Henry Bradshaw Fearon, Sketches of America (London, 1819).
- Examples taken from Dalton, Travels in the United States of America, and Part of Upper Canada.
- Examples taken from Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, 2 volumes (London, 1824).
- Examples taken from Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, 2 volumes (Philadelphia, 1828).
The merchant…buys the raw silk, and gives it out to private families, to be manufactured in small parcels: his profits are immense, and the poor workmen, who are obliged to accept of his own terms or starve, can barely gain a livelihood by incessant toil.