Money, Honey

19 Jan

Understanding how money works is important in everything from historical novels to fantasy and sci-fi. It forms an important part of the internal logic of a world and mentions of money that don’t seem to fit the world can jar the reader. While you might not have to work out the relative prices of everything, it helps to know what’s cheap and what’s expensive and how much money makes a person rich or poor. Then it’s possible to make consistent references to things like the prices of goods and services.

In the pre and early industrial era, labor was cheap while goods were not. Goods had to be hand made and luxuries were shipped around the world in a time consuming and dangerous process, then heavily taxed. This made things like cloth expensive. In the Georgian period a servant’s uniform could cost as much as their annual salary, and a silk handkerchief could buy a week’s worth of food. That’s one of the reasons why you can’t just convert old prices into modern numbers, the value systems are different.

In modern times mechanization has made production quick and cheap. Quicker and safer methods of transportation have made it possible to outsource manufacturing to poorer regions, keeping prices down even as wages rise. In industrialized nations, labor is expensive, especially specialized labor, while in developing nations it is still generally inexpensive. Decreases in population can make labor more valuable as well. After the Black Death spread through Europe, serfs were able to gain increasing freedom because their labor became more valuable.

Land values work in similar ways. In a feudal system where the economy is mainly dependent on agriculture and local produce, land in the main source of income. But in an industrial society it can be a major burden with upkeep and taxes and without peasant labor. So, if you’re writing anything that’s not contemporary, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that money should work differently.

There’s also more to money than the paper and coins we tend to think of first when we hear the word. Various types of money include:

-Valuable Metals: often made into standardized coins, they could include gold, silver, copper, and bronze. People would often cut up coins to get smaller denominations, so a piece of eight was actually one eighth of a Spanish dollar coin. (Two bits was two pieces or a quarter, the phrase “shave and a haircut—two bits” is a reference to this.)

-Other Valuable Objects: Often shells, like cowries, which were used at various times worldwide. Wampum belts were belts of shell beads used as currency and also to seal treaties and commemorate events among Native American tribes on the eastern seaboard.

-Paper: Typically resisted at first as it lacks intrinsic value. Some forms of paper currency include promissory notes from banks promising to pay actual money on request. These evolved into modern banknotes, or paper money.

-Electronic: most money currently exists only in computers and records, not physically, and can be wired from place to place or transferred by use of cards or transfer numbers.

Have you given much thought to what your characters buy and how they buy it?


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently querying. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.


12 Responses to “Money, Honey”

  1. Heather January 19, 2011 at 1:00 AM #

    Very interesting post, Jen. This is definitely one of my hang ups when I’m writing “journey” sequences and my characters have to barter/buy/otherwise obtain traveling supplies…how in the world do I determine how much money they need?! It’s very important to consider the relative value of services vs. goods vs. money. I’m glad you brought it up!

    • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:15 AM #

      Thanks Heather! I had that same problem too, which was what got me thinking about it in the first place.

  2. Savannah J. Foley January 19, 2011 at 1:01 AM #

    I love having a history buff on staff ❤

    • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:15 AM #

      Haha thanks, Sav, I can just throw random facts at you all day 🙂

  3. Angela January 19, 2011 at 8:26 AM #

    This post was so interesting. I didn`t know that a servant`s uniform was as much as his annual salary.

    Don`t forget rice. I know that in Japan, all of the samurai were paid in rice. :3

    • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:22 AM #

      Thanks. Foods are important too, I forgot to include them, so thanks for bringing it up! Roman soldiers were paid in salt too.

  4. Rowenna January 19, 2011 at 9:47 AM #

    Such a great point! Hearty agreement on the cost of cloth and other “basics” in the past–as a living history participant, I’ll sometimes get the point across by telling a garment’s story–perhaps it was my mother’s gown origially and I reworked it to a newer fashion to salvage the fabric 🙂

    Also fun/scary/necessary to think about items that are common today that were super-valuable in the past–or could be in the future–because of scarcity. Like stockings being a huge deal during WWII because of production and shipping issues, plus rationing. Or the cost of spices before widespread shipping became possible.

    • Caitlin January 19, 2011 at 1:53 PM #

      On spices: there’s an entire book about the history of the mineral salt because before refrigeration is was SO important and so valuable and now because of refrigeration and other modern innovations it’s so cheap!

      • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:20 AM #

        Salt by Mark Kurlansky!! I love that book so much. He has a couple on different fish too. I really want to read more books that trace the histories of different products because I think that kind of stuff is fascinating.

    • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:18 AM #

      Yeah it’s funny to think that so many of the foods we eat today would have been impossible or luxuries because of spices. Or the way we get fruits and vegetables out of season all year would have been impossible a hundred years ago.

  5. Aurora Blackguard January 19, 2011 at 10:20 AM #

    This is incredibly informative and cool – I mean, who would have known about serfs being so important back then or permissionary notes evolving into dollars and such??? not me, thats for sure!

    Totally helpful for world-buıldıng too! Thanks Jen! 🙂

    • jenn fitzgerald January 20, 2011 at 12:23 AM #

      Thanks! The development of paper money is all kinds of crazy. I love world-building too so I’m glad I could write something helpful 🙂

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