A Twice-Told Tale

For this week’s blog I
reprint one of the most enduring stories relating to early American
numismatics—an often-quoted favorite ever since it first was published nearly 200
years ago.

Grandfather’s Chair

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Grandfather told them a story
about Captain John Hull and
the Pine Tree shillings. Captain John Hull 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, 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 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.
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, I suppose, and silver buckles, and broken
spoons, and silver buttons of worn-out 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 from the mines of South America, which the English
buccaneers—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 mintmaster would have the best of the bargain. They offered
him a large sum of money if he would but give up that 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 very 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
small-clothes 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
bridesmaids, 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 had forbidden any man to
wear it below the ears. But he was a very personable young man, and so thought
the bridesmaids 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. They 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

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 at 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!”

The children laughed heartily at
this legend, and would hardly be convinced but that grandfather had made it out
of his own head. He assured them faithfully, however, that he had found it in
the pages of a grave historian, and had merely tried to tell it in a somewhat
funnier style. As for Samuel Sewell, he afterwards became chief justice of Massachusetts.

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