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Guest op-ed: How much is it?

By Anneli Byrd - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Jan 19, 2022

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Anneli Byrd

I love the old mystery authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. These stories take place in England during the time when the money system used pounds, shillings and pence. For some reason, this abbreviates to LSD, not PSP, but trust me, LSD makes a whole lot more sense. In these books, I am constantly reading sentences like this one from one of my favorite Sayers books, “Murder Must Advertise”: “Bob for the wreath and sixpence for the sweep. … Has anybody got two schillings for a florin?” Which I vaguely take to mean, “Here’s some money, does anyone have change?” One day, I decided it was ridiculous that I didn’t understand the money and took the time to finally look it up. Now that I’ve done that, I am as lost as ever in the London fog of pre-1970’s currency. But maybe some of you mystery lovers are smarter than I am, so here you go. Good luck.

Smallest coin, a farthing, equals a quarter of a penny (also called a copper). Two farthings equal a ha’penny (half penny) and two ha’pennies = one penny. So far, so good. Then we suddenly shift from dividing things into easy quarters to dividing into threes, with an eye toward figuring everything out by a system of 12s, which I’m sure we all agree was the easiest times table to memorize. Three pennies equal a threepence or thruppence, which if you double it gives you a sixpence or six pennies, also called a tanner — or tenner for some reason. And if you double that you get one shilling or 12 pence.

So, it’s just on a system of 12s rather than 10s, right? Ha ha! A crown is five shillings but a half-crown is not two shillings and five and a half pennies, it’s two shillings and six pennies. So, two half crowns are better than one whole crown (which is just asking for trouble). The florin (equal to two shillings) is a completely random currency. Anyway, one crown is five shillings or a quarter pound, and one pound is 20 shillings or 240 pennies. I was disappointed to learn that a sovereign, which sounds fancy, is only equal to a crown, but then felt better when I learned it was made of 22 carat gold, so be sure to pack your time machine with as many sovereigns as you can before they go off the gold standard. Lastly, we have the guinea which is 21 shillings, the same as one pound plus one shilling or 252 pennies. In summary: What?

Whoever came up with this had to be someone from the upper classes because: 1. they had the power and 2. they were drunk. I gather from my mysteries, BBC TV, “Downton Abbey” and no other research that only the upper class does any serious drinking. All of the good people in the lower and middle classes plus the queen drink tea constantly. I mean, constantly. No one can possibly have suffered from dehydration in the whole country since tea became a thing. Occasionally, the men might go to the pub for a pint or half a pint, which for all I know is equal to 24 tablespoons minus a skinnard or three teaspoons and … never mind. While the backbone of British society is gulping down tea by the gallon (two quarts = one gallon, and 10 gallons equal one cowboy hat), the upper classes have been drinking alcohol from the cradle. I don’t know why. Maybe they drink so much in order to cope with all the corpses in their libraries? Or maybe they’re stressed because they don’t understand the money system either.

But it’s all good. This is England. The corpse probably deserved to die, the detective will get the bad guy and everyone has plenty of tea and sherry along the way. Plus, I kind of love that the money in my beloved mysteries is still mysterious even after I looked it up.

Anneli Byrd is an academic adviser in Weber State University’s Student Success Center.

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