The Cost Of College Tuition In 1692

In assigning me Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff’s history The Witches: Salem 1692 to review, the senior editor at Barnes & Noble mentioned that the footnotes are particularly delightful. Indeed they are. This one might be my favorite so far, from pg 35:

Harvard tuition — which ran about fifty-five pounds for the four-year course of study — was paid the same way [in barter], most commonly in wheat and malt. The occasional New England father sent his son to Cambridge with parsnips, butter, and, regrettably for all, goat mutton. A 141-pound side of beef covered a year’s tuition. Translating in another direction, four years’ tuition amounted to the cost of a small house.

That makes sense. Banks were only just coming into being across the pond, according to this overview of 17th century life.

banking developed in the 17th century. As England grew more commercial so lending money became more important. In the early 17th century goldsmiths lent and changed money. Then in 1640 King Charles I confiscated gold, which London merchants had deposited at the mint for safety. Afterwards people began to deposit money with goldsmiths instead. The goldsmiths gave receipts for the gold in the form of notes promising to pay on demand.

In time merchants and tradesmen began to exchange these notes as a form of money. The goldsmiths realized that not all of their customers would withdraw their gold at the same time. So it was safe to issue notes for more gold than they actually had. They could then lend money using the extra notes. The Bank of England was founded in 1694.

Domestically, the First Bank of the United States launched about a century later in 1791, thanks to, of course, Alexander Hamilton. (“Immigrants: We get the job done.”) One central bank preceded it: the Bank of North America, which opened in 1782, also with the input of A. Ham. It was a private enterprise, albeit one in which the federal government owned a majority share, and was surpassed and replaced by FBoUS.

In 1783, though, for the first time, a US citizen could pay taxes with bank notes, or “certificates,” instead of, I don’t know, pig fat. OK, I just looked it up, and I’m not far off. According to the Hoover Institution, during Colonial times,

Fees, taxes, and personal debts could be settled in any form of lawful money. Colonial legislatures gave locally produced crops (cereals, corn, tobacco, rice) official value for payment of taxes. Other lawful commodities included beaver skins, cattle, and wampum (black shells were valued at double the rate of white). Milk pails were accepted as tax payments in the town of Hingham. Commodities were a clumsy, inefficient form of payment. They had to be valued for tax purposes, delivered to the government, stored, preserved, and then distributed as payment.

To minimize taxes, colonists shipped their worst products to colonial treasurers. In Virginia, quitrents were paid in tobacco. In the 1680s, the auditor-general reported that “the quantity of unmerchantable leaf passed upon collectors was so large that the revenue from this source had dwindled almost to nothing.”


Well, we may have been tax evaders from our nation’s early days, and we might have been slow to set up banks, compared to England. But Americans do apparently have the distinction of being the first Western nation to use paper currency. The practice originated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690, and that brings us back to where we started: a quarrelsome, cold weather Puritan enclave that cannot keep a minister, that pays its boys’ college tuition in beer, and where local girls are beginning to suffer from a curious, frightening malady.

How we get from there to nine months of the most unaccountably bizarre and embarrassing behavior in American history, I am eager to learn. And as I encounter more eye-opening footnotes, I’ll be happy to share.

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