In the United States of 1829, people’s living conditions varied widely. The typical workingman made less than eighty cents for a day’s work, and at least 75,000 Americans were languishing in debtors’ prisons—most of them for debts of less than twenty dollars. Meanwhile, in Boston the newly opened Tremont Hotel, said to be the nation’s first modern hostelry, offered guests a private room with a key, four square meals and a free cake of soap—all for the modest sum of two dollars a day. But rich or poor, at least no one had to long wistfully for a good five-cent cigar. Five cents would have bought several good cigars in that long-ago year.
People buying five cents’ worth of any item in 1829 could have given merchants exact change for their purchases in a number of different ways. Large copper cents and half cents, for example, both saw regular use in everyday commerce. The “nickel,” however, did not yet come into being; .... (Expand Text)