Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dollars-and-Cents

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 1, 2013

When someone talks to you about things from a dollars-and-cents point of view, they’re strictly talking money.  But what’s the background on that expression? Who started being so specific that they had to insert dollars-and-cents into a conversation about money? Once you know the history behind this saying, you’ll understand why it sometimes needed — and still needs — to be said just this way!

On August 26, 1994 the Milwaukee Journal published an article that discussed the difficulties the United Nations was having in making ends meet. The problems arose as the UN faced new responsibilities including foreign peacekeeping operations. The article was aptly entitled:

Dollars-and-Cents Plea For Peace

On October 3, 1980 the Evening Independent newspaper of St. Petersburg (FL) excerpted an article by Robert Runde that was originally published in  MONEY Magazine. As with any article dealing with an upcoming election, it focused on inflation, taxes and employment opportunities. In other words, money issues. Ronald Reagan wanted an across-the-board tax cut that would most help upper-income taxpayers. Jimmy Carter focused on an economic renewal plan. And independent presidential candidate (who received 6% of the vote in that election) John Anderson wanted investors and savers to get bigger tax breaks. The story ran with this headline:

The Dollars-and-Cents Plans Of The Presidential Candidates

The Miami News ran a news story on March 31, 1943 entitled, “New Beef, Lamb, Veal And Pork Prices To Be Set For April.” It reported on the controversial issue of ceilings on livestock “on the shelf” and the revamping of the then-current meat price controls. It was a move that intended to curb the soaring prices on live animals at the farm level and relieve the pressure on packers, wholesalers and retailers who had to abide by the fixed prices. The article read in part:

For some months the agency has been engaged in replacing the old controls, which fixes maximums at the high price charged in March, 1942, by each individual seller, with specific dollars-and-cents ceilings at the packer, wholesale and retail level.

The New York Times published a story on March 4, 1906 that reported on the skepticism of real estate men and builders alike with regards to a proposed 40-story tower at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street in New York City. It wasn’t that anyone was concerned that such a building couldn’t be built, but rather that building an ‘extremely high building‘ on a small lot wasn’t held in high regard. What’s more, the cost of putting up such a building would never justify the cost of advertising its value and generating a reasonable annual income in revenues.

With 3,000 square feet of space for rent on each floor at a cost of $3 per square foot, it was almost unimaginable in the day that a floor would command a rent of $9,000 per month! And the prediction that the building would generate $250,000 net per year was audacious, especially at a time in history when the concept of tenants renting entire floors for their businesses was only just growing in popularity. There was also the question of the elevator equipment needed for such a building. The problems that could be foreseen were many and all of them serious. The article ran under the headline:

Dollars-and-Cents Side Of Forty-Story Tower: Gigantic Structure To Be Built Primarily As A Money-Maker

Twenty-five years earlier, on August 18, 1876, the Weekly Press republished a New York Times story on Governor Tilden’s war record and Mr. Hewitt’s defence of Governor Tilden’s war record. Reporting on the proceedings of the House, readers learned that Mr. Kasson of Iowa “began a violent and vindictive political campaign speech, in which he indulged in personal attacks upon Gov. Tilden. He denounced him in most flagrant terms as having been a secessionist and disunionist.”

There was a fair bit of excitement after that speech and finally the floor went to Mr. Hewitt of New York, who took on Mr. Kasson’s attack of Governor Tilden. It was said that Mr. Hewitt “approached the subject as he would take hold of a slimy snake, with a desire to get rid of it.” Over the course of his defense of the governor,  Mr. Hewitt said many things, but none so cleverly said as this one statement:

I am not going to state dollars and cents. Patriotism is above dollars-and-cents in some quarters.

Dropping back to the law reports published in the New York Times on December 6, 1859, a number of court cases were mentioned in detail. In the case of The People vs Sarah Stuart et. al, alleged shoplifter, the newspaper stated that “a certiorari and a habeas corpus to obtain the papers upon which the defendant was committed, for review” and to have the body of the prisoner brought into Court” had been made. The matter of 15 yards of stolen silk and the accusation that Ms. Stuart was an accomplice to another woman’s theft of the purloined fabric resulted in the following:

The matter was brought before Justice Clerke, at Chambers, who refused to hear it, stating that the business of the Court should not be interrupted by such motions. Counsel for the prisoner said his client’s interests were of as much importance as the dollars-and-cents of civil litigants, who claimed the exclusive use of the Court at Chambers — that liberty was of more account than silver and gold.

The matter was subsequently postponed until Wednesday.

It would appear that accusations of political bribery have been around for as long as can imagine. The Charleston Mercury republished an article on January 18, 1842 that had originally been posted in the New York Herald, on the issue of repealing the Bankrupt Law. The Charleston Mercury reported that the New York Herald had reported that the Courier and Enquirer had reported (yes, this sounds a lot like the childhood game of ‘hot potato’) that foreign agents and agents of British creditors living in America, had accumulated a secret fund of several million dollars which bought and paid for the repeal of the Bankrupt Law at a rate of $100,000 USD per vote. Bribery and corruption! And who was alleged to have accepted bribes from these “foreign agents and agents of British creditors living in America?” The first nine named were:

Charles G. Ferris of New York
Thos. J. Campbell of Tennessee
R.L. Caruthers of Tennessee
B.S. Cowans of Ohio
J.H. Cravens of Indiana
Garret Davis of Kentucky
A.R. Soliers of Maryland
C.H. Williams of Tennessee
A. Young of Vermont

A subsequent nine were named, under the heading “Kentucky Delegation” and these included:

Mr. Boyd
Wm. O Butler
Mr. Green
T.F. Marshall
Mr. Owsley
Mr. Pope
Mr. Triplett
Mr. Underwood
J.B. Thompson

The news was awash in political intrigue, criminal activity, and aggregate blackmail in the eyes of newspaper subscribers! The response by Mr. Webb and published in the newspaper read thusly:

We do believe that such political bribery and political corruption have been and are at the bottom of this disgraceful proceeding; and we do not hesitate to say, that in our opinion, the member of Congress who could be thus seduced from his duty to his country, to his own, conscience, and to his unfortunate fellow citizens, is as dishonest and dishonorable as if he had openly received a bribe in dollars-and-cents.

The reason for using the expression dollars-and-cents with hyphens is due to the fact that during this period of American history, many Americans distrusted any paper money that used the decimal system of dollars and cents. In fact, public officials and private businesses often preferred using the British system of pence, shillings, and pounds even though American money was dollars and cents. In this respect, even if pence, shillings and pounds were in use, the overall cost was still considered the dollars-and-cents cost of doing business.

What’s more, in America in the 1830s, there was insufficient currency in circulation for all the business people, making America cash-poor. At that point in American history, gold, silver and copper coins held the value of the metal in the coin, and paper money was only as good as the private bank that printed it. If the bank failed, the paper money printed by that bank was useless to those holding on to that paper money.

Businesses and professionals continued to attach “dollars and cents” amounts to products and services, however, they began to extend credit since real dollars and real cents were unreliable barter. Thus began the layers of interlocking debt at the foundation of the American economy … the dollars-and-cents amounts owed to, and by, individuals.

The next time you hear someone talk about the dollars-and-cents costs of an expenditure, they’re talking about the hard costs … the costs of services and products associated with that expenditure … in dollars and cents.

Because of this, Idiomation pegs dollars-and-cents to the early 1830s.

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