Sunday, March 18, 2012

Boycott Ellen!

In for a Penney, in for a pound

Ellen Degeneres and JC Penney have mortally offended me!

No, I'm not talking about that silly whining from the harpies at One Million Moms (who are no better at counting than they are at living in the 21st century). My objection is to the mathematically inaccurate television ad in which Ellen dons 19th century garb and asks a milliner the price of a hat. When the lady informs her that the hat costs “fourteen pounds and ninety-pence,” Ellen responds with, “Okay, so fifteen pounds.” The lady firmly disagrees, but Ellen persists and finally gets her to admit that the stated price is as good as fifteen pounds.


The British pound was not divided into 100 pennies (the “new pence” of 1971) until the 20th century. Before that, a pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of which was worth 12 pence. If you do the math, that's 240 pence (old pennies) to the pound. If 19th-century English hat shops had been in the habit of shaving off a penny to make prices look lower, a one-penny reduction in a hat costing 15 pounds would result in a price of 14 pounds, 19 shillings, 11 pence—or £14/19/11 in the notation of the day. My penpal in Birmingham (England) used to send me letters in the 1960s whose stamps were labeled in pence, e.g.,  4d (“d” was reserved to the old penny and was replaced by “p” when the new coinage was introduced).

My trust in Ellen is shattered and I will never again take her advice on matters monetary.


Ray said...

Er... not so fast there, Mr Z!!

A shilling was twelve pence.
A pound was twenty shillings.

And thus the shaved-off price would have been £14/19/11 (we never included the 'd' - derived from 'denarius' - when the price was in this format).

The penny was further divided into both 'halfpennies' (haypnees) and 'farthings' (both of which I remember using).

And then there were guineas - I'm not being derogatory here! They were one pound and one shilling. For some reason, there was some kind of cachet attached to an item that was priced in guineas. I always thought it was rather odd.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Beat me to it.

I always love the "make it guineas and it's done" line in old novels. For every twenty pounds you "make guineas" you've add a pound!

Zeno said...

Thanks awfully, Ray. Fixed now. Damned transpositions! I wrote it down one way, then typed it the other.

The Pick Man said...

You are right, Ray. I recall buying a suit for 5 guineas. Very posh!

With regard to the nineteenth century, it is unlikely that prices would be made in price jumps as large as a penny. A penny was worth much more in those days. A farthing was worth a quarter of a penny and just as today something might be priced at £14.99 to make it look less than £15; so, in those days it would have been at £14.19.11¾ (colloquially said as ‘fourteen pounds, nineteen and eleven, three’.)

My father (1890 – 1961) was proud of the fact that as a child he went to the fish and chip shop, bought a ha’penny piece of fish, a farthing ‘s worth of chips, and took home a farthing change.

Bacopa said...

If my understanding of 19th Century money is correct, 14 pounds is a huge sum of money. According to Bleak House, a senior law clerk on his way to becoming a lawyer made 100 pounds a year plus a bonus of less than ten pounds.

Also, one of the recurring themes in Trollope's Political Novels is conversion to a decimal currency. Late in the series some characters mention upcoming issues like redistricting, decimal money, and the main character's granddaughter adds "and votes for women". This comment is brushed off, but in real life UK women got the vote almost fifty years before decimal currency.

Zeno said...

A fair point, Bacopa. Ellen must be considerate an extremely expensive hat.

John Armstrong said...

Well, since a pound used to be a (Troy) pound of silver, and since silver was recently selling for $35US per (Troy) ounce, that fifteen-pound hat would go for about $6300US.


Zeno said...

I hear Romney bought a couple for his wife.

Anonymous said...

And how does the quid fit into this complicated heirarchy?

Karen said...

I was in the allergist's office desperately searching for something to read while I waited for my shots, and I came across a magazine (the name of which I've forgotten) that featured clothes, shoes, hats, etc. in the thousands of dollars price range. There was no understatement in any of the looks; they were designed to look as expensive as they were. I was kind of grossed out, actually.

Zeno said...

It's my understanding that "quid" is just a slang term for "pound," much like "buck" is a slang term for "dollar."

Bacopa said...

Well, since a pound used to be a (Troy) pound of silver, and since silver was recently selling for $35US per (Troy) ounce, that fifteen-pound hat would go for about $6300US.

Surely that must have changed by the time of Bleak House, or else silver was really cheap then. No way Esther would turn down Mr. Guppy if he was pulling hundreds of thousands a year. And Mr. Guppy was living with his mom to save up money for his own practice after he passed his exams. I doubt he would do that if he was making the big bux.

Bleak House also features an example of the "Something to Remember Him By" trope. Rick is working himself to death, then he dies, so you know Ada has to be pregnant, and she is.

Tualha said...

Funny how they seem to have completely missed the irony of having a famous out lesbian go to 19th century England, where her choices would be to stay in the closet or face massive discrimination including probable prison time or unwanted medical treatment. Oscar Wilde, anyone? Alan Turing?

For that matter, a famous feminist in a time when women couldn't vote.

Wow, those old systems of measurement sure were complicated. I'm so glad we live in the modern world and don't have to deal with crazy conversion factors like 12, 32, or 5,280 anymore. (Yes, I'm American, that's sarcasm.)

kai said...

Oh, but I think we should take the price of “fourteen pounds ninety-nine pence” at face value, so 14£8s3d. Rounding that up to 15£ would increase the price by almost 12 shillings, a quite considerable sum. If I had been the saleslady I certainly would have grabbed the money and run.

Anonymous said...

No one's yet mentioned that luxury goods, like fine hats, were priced in guineas, not pounds sterling.

Originally a pound sterling was a literal pound of sterling silver. It was such a large sum of money, no one really used it in transactions. It would be like having a $10,000 bill. Extremely wealthy people would occasionally make purchases of goods costing more than a pound. It was rather unreasonable to carry fifteen pounds of silver to buy a coach, for example. Thus the guinea was introduced. It was a gold coin originally worth one pound; since gold is so much more valuable than silver, guinea were manageably-sized coins. Due to the variation in the price of gold, it's value varied as high as 30s. It was later fixed at 21s. (This is where the Mad Hatter's "10/6" card comes from. It was a price tag for ten schillings, six pence, or half a guinea.

Ellen's hat wouldn't have been priced at fourteen pounds, ninety-nine pence. It would have been fourteen and one half-guinea, which sounds smaller than fifteen pounds.

That Other Mike said...

"A farthing was worth a quarter of a penny and just as today something might be priced at £14.99 to make it look less than £15; so, in those days it would have been at £14.19.11¾ (colloquially said as ‘fourteen pounds, nineteen and eleven, three’.)"

Back in the day, they did do that - but the custom in a lot of places like hardware shops, milliners, corner shops etc was not to give a farthing in change. Instead, they would give you a packet of pins as change, so as not to be faffing about with massive quantities of farthings.