History, part 16: the colour of money

Have you noticed that whenever people start talking about material possessions, whether they are cars, clothes, houses or high-tech gadgets, it doesn’t take long before the conversation turns to their price.  Whether you’ve found a bargain, are outraged by exorbitant prices, or simply curious about how much things cost, it is the universal method of ascribing a value to things.  It’s the same with canaries: you might be talking about a successful breeder and the quality of his stud, but it’s only a matter of time before you ask how much he charges for a good bird, even if it is a variety you don’t keep!  Go on, admit it, you’ve done the same.

That is why I am surprised that whenever anyone writes about Hervieux’s Nouveau traité des serins de Canaries, the focus is always on his 28 ‘varieties’; the price of canaries never crops up.  Perhaps they don’t realise that he also provided a detailed price list.

I speculated in History part 15 that Hervieux’s famous list was actually nothing more than a merchant’s stock list; the merchants being the oiseleurs, the bird dealers of Paris.  The prices, unsurprisingly, followed the same order as Hervieux’s list: starting with most common (the cheapest) and finishing with the most beautiful (the most expensive).  Not every ‘variety’ is priced, but the trend is consistent. Here it is (1):

hervieuxs-price-list-1711-fss

Even if you know nothing about French currency in the early eighteenth century, you can see that the spread from cheapest to most expensive is a multiple of eight.  That’s quite a lot when you realise that these birds were intended for the pet market, and that their price was based entirely on the appearance of the bird.  Nowhere does Hervieux suggest that the price varied according to the quality of the song (2).

The prices themselves can be confusing:  ‘f’ and ‘s’ looked very similar in European type-setting in the eighteenth century (3).  What appears to be ‘3.l. 10.f.’ is actually ‘3.l. 10.s.’ in modern type and means 3 livres, 10 sols (4).  That’s all very well, but what we really want to know is how much would that be worth today?  We not only need to convert livres into pounds but also allow for over 300 years of inflation.  That’s tricky.

Official measures of inflation like the Retail Price Index (RPI) are hardly relevant here because they only go back about 70 years.  A method that I sometimes use is to look at historic wages and prices, but that has its limitations too because it is difficult to compare like with like (not many people employ a footman any more).  Fortunately there is another yardstick we can use, one which is universal and automatically adjusts for inflation: the price of gold.

In France, as in most European countries, coinage was based on precious metals: the most valuable contained gold, then came silver coins, and finally the ‘small change’ that used copper.  The gold content of the major coins provided a basis for foreign exchange – as long as you knew how much a coin should weigh and what proportion of gold it contained.  Traders would carry scales with them to check the weight of the coins to detect ‘clipping’ (5).

In Britain, the gold coin was the guinea; in France the equivalent coin was known as the Louis d’or (6).  The amount of gold it contained varied over the years, but fortunately, we know that the Louis d’or minted in 1711 contained just over 7.45 grams of gold (7), which at today’s bullion prices would be worth around £250 (8).  In 1726 the value of the Louis d’or was fixed at 24 livres, and assuming that it did not vary significantly in the preceeding 15 years, that makes a livre in Hervieux’s price list worth about £10.25.

There are several caveats that need to be noted here.  The value of gold fluctuates according to economic conditions, but fortunately the current price of gold is roughly mid-way between its high and low points over the last ten years, so is about ‘average’ (9).  Exchange rates also change and the price of gold depends on whether you are a retail buyer or a trader on the bullion market.  We also need to be aware that the modern retail price of a Louis d’or is based on its antique value, not its gold content.  The coin you can see at the head of this article was offered on eBay at £1980!  There are so many variables that I suggest you allow a significant tolerance on any figures quoted here.

Subject to these caveats, and assuming that the livre of 1711 is roughly equivalent to £10.25 today, we can now translate Hervieux’s prices into their modern day equivalents.  The cheapest canary, the Serin Gris commun (the common grey canary) was worth £35 at today’s prices, while the most expensive, the Serin Jonquille Panaché de noir & regulier (the regular yellow & black variegated canary) would be over £250.  Not bad for a pet songster!

These, of course, were retail prices set by the oiseleurs and therefore at the top end of the market.  No doubt the price would have been lower if you bought a bird direct from the breeder.  On the other hand, some canaries were so rare and so unusual that they didn’t even appear in Hervieux’s price list.  He tells us that ‘We frequently see curious persons, who are well to pass in the World, and make nothing to give 3 or 400 Livres for a Couple of Canary-Birds they fancy’ (10).

Let’s just think about that for a moment.  400 livres, if my estimate has a semblance to reality, would be the equivalent of over £4,000 for a pair of canaries today.  They may have been no more than exotic songsters, but it just goes to show that if a buyer is keen enough he will pay whatever is necessary to acquire the birds he desires.  Things haven’t changed much in 300 years, have they?

Footnotes:

  1. This price list is taken from the 1711 edition.  The prices vary as new editions of the book were printed later in the century.
  2. The only price differential based on song was that cocks were twice the price of hens
  3. In eighteenth century typesetting, an ‘s’ looked like a modern ‘s’ if it was a capital or at the end of a word.  If, however, it was lower case and located at the beginning or the middle of a word, it used a symbol (known as the ‘long s’) that looked like an ‘f’.  You can distinguish it from a real ‘f’ by looking at the cross bar: it may only appear on the left, or not at all, thus ‘ſ ‘.  Anyone who researches eighteenth century texts gets used to it after a while.
  4. The sol was also commonly known as a sous.  There were 20 sols to 1 livre.
  5. Clipping involved skimming the outer rim of a coin, and accumulating the swarf to sell for its gold content.  The clipped coin would weigh less than its official specification, hence the importance of checking valuable coins with weighing scales.
  6. Originally named after Louis XIII whose profile was engraved on the coin.
  7. A Louis d’or contained 7.45 grams of gold in 1711 and 7.47 grams in 1726, according to the Marteau Early 18th Century Currency Converter.
  8. Based on the trade price of 22 carat gold in October 2016 at £33 per gram x 7.45 = £245.85, say £250.
  9. Over the last ten years alone, the price of gold has varied +/- 50% relative to its current value.
  10. A New Treatise of Canary Birds (English translation of the Nouveau traité des serins de Canaries), anon (1718 ) p.141.

One thought on “History, part 16: the colour of money

  1. Prices have always been dictated by the market, which in this case concerned the rarity and the latest mutations of colour as well as their arrangements in pied birds (evently and unevently pied). Only the top class (noble men and church men) could afford to pay such prices for canaries. The lower class was catching and breeding the indigenous birds.

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