A Titanic Disaster
By Byron King
09/13/12 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – (This Daily Reckoning “Classique” first appeared in Whiskey & Gunpowder on December 1, 2004, recounting a Philadelphia exhibit of Titanic artifacts.)
The first item is a set of gold-rimmed eyeglasses. Further on, there is a pocket watch stopped at 11:14. Then there is a brown leather suitcase, somewhat worse for the wear. There are stacks of white dishes and racks of dark green bottles. Another display shows brass plumbing fixtures and a gray, steel wrench. And at another stop along the walk one sees a copper and glass engine thermometer. There is a jade rosary, and a man’s boulder hat, of all things, in remarkably fine condition, considering… And a pair of woman’s shoes, made of black leather. Not one shoe, but a pair, recovered from the sea floor beneath 12,000 feet of cold North Atlantic water.
Then there are the coins and paper currency. Gold coins, silver coins, copper. British, American, French. This was real money back then, from a gold standard era. And the paper notes also tell a tale. They are a collection of official British and American treasury promissory notes, and a remarkable amount of scrip from private banks, redeemable in precious metal.
Every note has an annotation at some spot or another, promising to pay to the bearer some quantity of gold or silver. “One Dollar Silver Note,” from a bank in New England, redeemable in an ounce of silver from that institution. Or a “Two Dollar Silver Certificate,” to be paid on demand by the Treasury of the United States of America in, not surprisingly, two ounces of silver. Or “Ten Gold Dollars,” half an ounce of yellow metal in 1912, promised by and intended to be paid to the bearer from the precious gold assets of the Government of the United States.
These artifact paper notes, recovered against all odds from their watery grave, still retain a certain sense of dignity. They do not declare mightily and officiously that they are “legal tender for all debts, public and private.” They do not have to… The notes represent a solemn promise by the issuer that, in return for a person lending a sum of honest money to the bank or government, the issuer of the note will repay an equal sum of precious metal at a time and place of mutual convenience. There is, it seems, a sense of financial humility, respect and national or corporate duty to these documents.
The Titanic exhibit explains that within about two years of the ship sinking, the British and American governments changed the methods by which they permitted currency to be issued. The exhibit does not go into detail, which is understandable. This is a display of artifacts from a sunken ship, not an exposition on monetary history. But it is interesting that the curators would mention it at all.
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