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THE PINE-TREE SHILLINGS

THE PINE-TREE SHILLINGS

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 01:02

The Captain John Hull aforesaid was the mint-master of Massachusetts,
and coined all the money that was made there. This was a new line of
business; for, in the earlier days of the colony, the current coinage
consisted of gold and silver money of England, and Portugal, and Spain.
These coins being scarce, the people were often forced to barter their
commodities instead of selling them.

For instance, if a man wanted to buy a coat, he perhaps exchanged a
bear-skin for it. If he wished for a barrel of molasses, he might
purchase it with a pile of pine boards. Musket-bullets were used instead
of farthings. The Indians had a sort of money, called wampum, which was
made of clam-shells; and this strange sort of specie was likewise taken
in payment of debts by the English settlers. Bank-bills had never been
heard of. There was not money enough of any kind, in many parts of the
country, to pay the salaries of the ministers; so that they sometimes
had to take quintals [Footnote: Quintals: hundredweights.] of fish,
bushels of corn, or cords of wood, instead of silver or gold.

As the people grew more numerous, and their trade one with another
increased, the want of current money was still more sensibly felt. To
supply the demand, the General Court passed a law for establishing a
coinage of shillings, sixpences, and threepences. [Footnote: Shillings:
Sixpences, and three-pences. What country did use and still uses this
system?] Captain John Hull was appointed to manufacture this money, and
was to have about one shilling out of every twenty to pay him for the
trouble of making them.

Hereupon all the old silver in the colony was handed over to Captain
John Hull. The battered silver cans and tankards, [Footnote: Tankards:
large drinking vessels.] I suppose, and silver buckles, and broken
spoons, and silver buttons of wornout coats, and silver hilts of swords
that had figured at court,--all such curious old articles were doubtless
thrown into the melting pot together. But by far the greater part of the
silver consisted of bullion [Footnote: Bullion: uncoined gold or silver
in the mass.] from the mines of South America, which the English
buccaneers [Footnote: Buccaneers: pirates.]--who were little better than
pirates--had taken from the Spaniards, and brought to Massachusetts.
All this old and new silver being melted down and coined, the result was
an immense amount of splendid shillings, sixpences, and threepences.
Each had the date, 1652, on the one side, and the figure of a pine-tree
on the other. Hence they were called pine-tree shillings. And for every
twenty shillings that he coined, you will remember, Captain John Hull
was entitled to put one shilling into his own pocket.

The magistrates soon began to suspect that the mint-master would have
the best of the bargain. They offered him a large sum of money if he
would but give up the twentieth shilling which he was continually
dropping into his own pocket. But Captain Hull declared himself
perfectly satisfied with the shilling. And well he might be; for so
diligently did he labor that, in a few years, his pockets, his
money-bags, and his strong box were overflowing with pine-tree
shillings. This was probably the case when he came into possession of
Grandfather's chair; and, as he had worked so hard at the mint, it was
certainly proper that he should have a comfortable chair to rest himself
in.

When the mint-master had grown rich, a young man, Samuel Sewell by name,
came a-courting to his only daughter. His daughter--whose name I do not
know, but we will call her Betsey--was a fine, hearty damsel, by no
means so slender as some young ladies of our own days. On the contrary,
having always fed heartily on pumpkin-pies, doughnuts, Indian puddings,
and other Puritan dainties, she was as round, and plump as a pudding
herself. With this round, rosy Miss Betsey did Samuel Sewell fall in
love. As he was a young man of good character, industrious in his
business, and a member of the church, the mint-master very readily gave
his consent.

"Yes, you may take her," said he, in his rough way, "and you'll find her
a heavy burden enough!"

On the wedding day, we may suppose that honest John Hull dressed himself
in a plum-colored coat, all the buttons of which were made of pine-tree
shillings. The buttons of his waistcoat were sixpences; and the knees of
his smallclothes [Footnote: Smallclothes: knee breeches.] were buttoned
with silver threepences. Thus attired, he sat with great dignity in
Grandfather's chair; and, being a portly old gentleman, he completely
filled it from elbow to elbow. On the opposite side of the room, between
her bridemaids, sat Miss Betsey. She was blushing with all her might,
and looked like a full-blown peony, or a great red apple.

There, too, was the bridegroom, dressed in a fine purple coat and
gold-lace waistcoat, with as much other finery as the Puritan laws and
customs would allow him to put on. His hair was cropped close to his
head, because Governor Endicott [Footnote: Governor Endicott: governor
of the Massachusetts colony from 1647 to 1665.] had forbidden any man to
wear it below the ears. But he was a very personable young man; and so
thought the bridemaids and Miss Betsey herself.

The mint-master also was pleased with his new son-in-law; especially as
he had courted Miss Betsey out of pure love, and had said nothing at all
about her portion. So, when the marriage ceremony was over, Captain Hull
whispered a word to two of his men-servants, who immediately went out,
and soon returned, lugging in a large pair of scales. There were such a
pair as wholesale merchants use for weighing bulky commodities; and
quite a bulky commodity was now to be weighed in them.

"Daughter Betsey," said the mint-master, "get into one side of these
scales."

Miss Betsey--or Mrs. Sewell, as we must now call her--did as she was
bid, like a dutiful child, without any question of the why and
wherefore. But what her father could mean, unless to make her husband
pay for her by the pound (in which case she would have been a dear
bargain), she had not the least idea.

"And now," said honest John Hull to the servants, "bring that box
hither."

The box to which the mint-master pointed was a huge square, iron-bound,
oaken chest; it was big enough, my children, for all four of you to play
hide-and-seek in. The servants tugged with might and main, but could not
lift this enormous receptacle, and were finally obliged to drag it
across the floor. Captain Hull then took a key from his girdle, unlocked
the chest, and lifted its ponderous lid. Behold! it was full to the brim
of bright pine-tree shillings, fresh from the mint; and Samuel Sewell
began to think that his father-in-law had got possession of all the
money in the Massachusetts treasury. But it was only the mint-master's
honest share of the coinage.

Then the servants, at Captain Hull's command, heaped double handfuls of
shillings into one side of the scales, while Betsey remained in the
other. Jingle, jingle, went the shillings, as handful after handful was
thrown in, till, plump and ponderous as she was, they fairly weighed the
young lady from the floor.

"There, son Sewell!" cried the honest mint-master, resuming his seat in
Grandfather's chair, "take these shillings for my daughter's portion.
Use her kindly, and thank Heaven for her. It is not every wife that's
worth her weight in silver!"

--NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

[Footnote: Notice the kindly quality of the humor. Do you know any other
stories written in this vein? Does the author seem to think that Miss
Betsey's charms or her money were her attraction?]
 
Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 October 2008 12:25
 
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