Community, Weird Words

Two bits on inflation.

Recently a friend explained the meaning of the phrase “two bits” to me.
It means “25 cents”. He recalls hearing a song on the radio when he was young that went “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”. While I was unable to find this song (the closest I came was a Florida state sports cheer), I did stumble on some more of the history behind the expression.

Back when the Age of Discovery was still underway, many countries were basing their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. Spanish silver dollars were often cut into eight pieces (like the slices of a pie). These smaller pieces were used as coins worth fractions of a dollar. Thus the Spanish silver dollar coin was also sometimes called “a piece of eight”, as it could be cut into eight “reales” or “bits”.

See the source image
A silver dollar, as well as 4-bit, 2-bit, and 1-bit pieces.

Many fledgling governments based their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. In 1792 the US government created a standardized currency for itself. The newly-founded U.S. Mint fixed the value of the American dollar to that of the Spanish silver dollar. When the first American quarter-dollars were minted, each was worth two 1/8 bits of a Spanish silver dollar.

Of course, inflation happened, as it usually does, and the Spanish pieces of eight (or “pesos”) were made with less silver than older ones, and their size kept dropping. The same could be said of Mexican Pesos, which started out based on the Spanish silver dollar as well. Eventually America went off the gold standard as well.

This brought the tune of “shave and a haircut (two bits)” to mind… Those words accompanying the tune date back to the 1930s… and provide us with an inkling of prices then.

It’s hard for the younger of us to imagine that a quarter used to be worth that much.
Nowadays I understand that a haircut tends to cost about $25.00 – one hundred times as much, in less than a hundred years.

It’ll be interesting to see how much one costs five years from now.

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