Money in ulysses

Joyce felt that a writer worth his salt knows how much money is in the pocket of each character.  While it's all well and good to know a character has four shillings ninepence (that's how much Mr. Bloom has in his pocket when he leaves his home on the morning of June 16, 1904), but what does that mean in today's currency?

I assume most contemporary readers of Joyce's work (especially those in the U.S.) are not familiar with the old British currency, its terminology, or its relative value.  

The currency was noted in ascending values from pennies/pence (d.), to shillings (s.), to pounds (l. or £), as follows:

  • 12 pennies = 1 shilling
  • 20 shillings = 1 pound
  • So, there were 240 pence in a pound (because a pound of sterling silver measured 240 pennyweights).

Further complicating things for today's reader, there were other names for specific coins and slang terms for amounts of money, as follows:

  • Guinea = £1, 1 s. (considered a more gentlemanly sum than a pound)
  • Bob = 1 shilling
  • Florin = 2 shillings
  • Tanner = 6 pence
  • Crown = 5 shillings
  • Sovereign = £1 coin
  • Quid = £1 note

Now, there are a few ways to go about assigning modern monetary values to 1904 British currency.  I personally find it fun to use the cost of a pint of Guinness to establish the rate of exchange, as follows:

  • In Ulysses, a pint of Guinness costs 2 d. (twopence) (U 1.724, 5.308)
  • At O'Neill's in Dublin in 2006, a pint cost €4.  Today (2017), I understand the price can reach as high as €6.50 (!).  
  • In Deep Hall at Lincoln College, Oxford, Simon charged £2.60 for a pint of Guinness in 2011; elsewhere, it was £3+.  I understand a pint is now typically above £3.50.
  • At Mick O'Shea's in Baltimore, a pint costs $6.50 (it was $4 when I moved here in 2007).

If 2 pence in Ulysses is today roughly $6.50, €6, or £3.50, it would then follow that a shilling in the novel is worth roughly $40, €35 or, say, £25.  Then, a pound in Ulysses is $480, €420, or £380.  

But, let's see if the Guinness rate for valuing money in Ulysses, when applied to other purchases made by Bloom, holds to today's buying power.  Mr. Bloom pays 3s 1d for a bar of lemon soap and Molly's custom-made lotion.  That would be more than $120, which seems about twice the right cost.  He pays 7 d. for a light lunch (gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy), which would be nearly $25, which also seems nearly double what one might expect to pay.  A coffee and bun at the cabman's shelter costs Bloom 4 d, or $13 in the rate - again, too high by half.  A copy of The Freeman's Journal costs Bloom 1 d, which would now be $3, at least two times as expensive as we would expect for a copy of a local paper. 

Perhaps Guinness is simply half the relative cost of other goods and services in 1904 Dublin?  That's a revealing and useful discovery in and of itself.

Frank Delaney suggests in one installment of his remarkable podcast Re:Joyce that 4 pence is actually closer to £3 or $5 today, makes more sense to me: lotion and soap = $45, sandwich and wine = $9, coffee and bun = $5, newspaper = $1.25.  That seems about right.

So, discarding the Guinness exchange and adopting the Delaney rate, a penny today would be $1.25 or £.75, a shilling would be $15 or £9, and a pound would be $300 or £180.