Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Note on Prices

During the First World War, the British currency was pounds, shillings and pence, and remained that way until decimalisation in 1971.  I was brought up with  the old currency and at junior school we did arithmetic in pounds, shillings and pence - not to mention yards, feet and inches, and stones, pounds and ounces.  The abbreviations for the old currency are £ for pounds, as now, s for shillings, and d for pence.  ('d' is short for the Latin denarius.)   So for instance, 3s 9d means 3 shillings and 9 pence.  There were 20 shillings in a pound, and 12 pence in a shilling.  (And so 240 pence in a pound.)

Prices in shillings and pence might be written as 3s 9d, or as 3/9.  A price like 5 shillings was often written as 5/-.  

When the currency was decimalised, the pound stayed the same but the old penny was dropped and replaced with a new penny.  There were 100 new pence in  a pound, and so 1p was worth 2.4d.   The shilling no longer had a role, although the shilling coin (worth 5p) continued to be used.

When notes were introduced in August 1914, to replace gold coins (described here), there were £1 and 10s denominations.  Ten shillings was a lot of money to many people - it was a week's wages for many women. The smallest coins were the ha'penny (½d) and farthing (¼d).  I  have not seen any mention of the farthing in prices from WW1, but it remained in use for a long time  - I remember my grandma using farthings at the local bread shop in the 1950s.  The price of a loaf cost, I think, 9¾d (ninepence three farthings).

Prices involving 11d were common, or even 11½d.   So £1 19s 11d is supposed to sound much less than £2, even though it is only 1d less, and 1s 11½d is supposed to sound much less than 2s.  I imagine it was as effective in fooling the customer as prices like £4.99 are now.

Posh shops, on the other hand, and especially posh clothes shops, priced their goods in guineas.  A guinea was £1 1s - the guinea had not been an official part of the currency for a long time, but it evidently carried a suggestion of the aristocracy and old money.  It also had the useful side-effect for the shop of  increasing the price by 5% compared to the same number of pounds.

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