Goodbye Common Cents

By Herman Silochan

Give me the day when a penny was a penny, a pound was a pound, our solid lives were measured in half crowns.

Those 1950 days are gone forever, but memories by old folk of an era when real currency were silver shillings jiggling in your pocket, six pence, pennies, half pennies and farthings were the loose change to buy extra “provisions” from the lady in the market. And you still had coin left over when you did your shopping. You piled the pennies up on a kitchen shelf, and soon you had a dollar. You were rich.

Do you remember your pound shillings and pence- dollar conversion tables?

“Twenty shillings make a pound
Twenty four cents make a shilling
Forty eight cents make a florin
Sixty cents make a half crown
Two cents make a penny
Two farthings make a cent
Four farthings make a penny.
And One Pound = $4.80 cents”

It’s not as complex as it looks, but if you didn’t know it, your school teacher would whip your backside with a flexible tamarind rod; you’d go home in pain, but still singin’ the streets with your school chums, “Pound shillings and pence, monkey jump on de fence!
Yes father dat is true, pound plantain and callaloo! Hail Mary full of grace, go hide yuh face in ah pillowcase!”

In my grandmother’s grocery shop, shillings, six pence and pennies
ruled the day. To round out the addition, there were those tiny farthings that actually carried value. People were precise then. When the farthing was phased out, there was much tut-tuting, and some shopper, usually a housewife, would cheups, and say, “But ay ay, look what happenin’ to we money nuh, it coming useless, eh?”

Then, lord of mercy, in 1961-62, shillings were abandoned, to be replaced by quarters. There was consternation among these old folk who were comfortable with the calculation: four shillings plus four cents = one dollar. Now all it took was four quarters = one dollar.

My dear Granny, who really knew how to count cash, but could not read nor write, muttered against the new independent government, not so much with the forced re-calculation, but that the new coin was flimsy looking. It was a bad omen she said over and over.

For her, real money was a shiny florin, which she flipped into the air, and let it drop on the weighing scale. Its sharp pinging meant it was real silver and not an imitation.

On Saturdays, I polished everyone’s shoes, all the brass in the house, scrubbed the drains and was rewarded with a shilling. Man, was I rich; I took my buddies to the matinées, at the corner Chinese café we drank watered down juice and ate stale bellyful cake, and, we still had change left over for a Sunday outing ‘round the Savannah for peanuts from Grenadian vendors.

I recall discovering years later in an old change box, a mass of farthings, all tarnished, but recognized that they were now useless. If I had some foresight, maybe I would have polished the lot and later sell them as collectors’ pieces. Ah, woe is me!

All those childhood memories came back this week as the Royal Canadian Mint stopped issuing pennies, i.e. cents, effective Monday. We are now admonished to “round off change transactions to the nearest five cents.” I guess we’ll eventually get used to it. There are those who long ago advocated such a move. With the issuance of metal loonies and toonies replacing paper one dollar and two dollar bills, our change purses have become heavy, and for many, those

cluttering pennies are a nuisance. I have been carrying for quite some time a cheap pig skin leather change purse to prevent holes forming in my pocket. It works.

We also know that making a cent at the Mint costs more than a cent, even as the metal has progressively been debased with the reduction of the copper content. And as you know, copper is a real expensive commodity these days and will be well into the future.

There is a classic economic statement called Gresham’s Law which says, “Bad money drives out good money, and even as you try to maintain parity.” It still holds today somewhat, and with a twist. Because today we do paper, credit and debit card transactions by the millions every single minute across the country, coins of all kinds are facing obsolescence. You still use coins to buy a double-double coffee and a doughnut, but beyond that, with bigger transactions, you flash your debit or credit card. Try buying an expensive new television set and paying cash, chances are the sales person will look at you with suspicion; that maybe you are a drug dealer or some kind of hustler.

Expanding Asian money backed by pools of cheap labour is forcing North America and European currency to revalue downwards just to be competitive. A coming cashless society with fast electronic conversion rates is one of the results. Coins are the first to go. Goodbye to our dear common cents.