Kirstin Smith, a PhD candidate in the Drama Department at Queen Mary (University of London), has been in this week looking at a number of volumes from the Goldsmith’s Library of Economic Literature.
The books Kirstin chose to consult concern the debate in the USA in the late nineteenth century as to whether that country should return to the system of ‘bimetallism’, where a nation’s holdings of gold and silver act as a guarantee of the value of a currency. As the ratio for the value of silver to gold was to be set at 32 to 1, rather than the actual value of 16 to 1, economists agreed that ‘free silver’ would cause inflation. The key point for politicians was whether this inflation would be beneficial – Democrats thought it would and Republicans did not. 1893 had marked a severe depression in the USA and many believed inflation was necessary to get the economy moving again (a debate still raging today). It would have been especially beneficial for the farmers of the Midwest and the South, as increased prices for their crops would enable them to repay debts quicker. The financial establishment of the Northeast, the railroads, industry, diversified farmers and business all favoured the Gold Standard; many of these were creditors and inflation would devalue the loans they had provided. Free silver was a populist movement that portrayed its campaign as a fight between ordinary Americans against bankers, railroad barons and other proponents of laissez-faire capitalism.
Free silver was also portrayed as anti-British – still a potent vote catcher at that time. As a policy objective bimetallism failed and the USA moved to the Gold Standard at the end of the nineteenth century, before the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 completely overhauled the US monetary system.
It was with the above in mind that I asked Kirstin why she was particularly interested in the volumes we had fetched for her and how they related to her wider research. Her answer was a surprise.
‘I’m researching the emergence of stunts as a form of performance, word and concept, so why am I reading about the bimetallism debate in the USA at the end of the 19th century? One of the earliest references to stunts I’ve found so far is in a New York newspaper in 1897. It’s about William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat politician who led the campaign for ‘free silver’. Through Bryan and the Free Silver campaign I am thinking about how stunts relate to value. I’ve been reading a campaign handbook, Silver vs. Gold. Free Silver and the people ([G.L.] E.896) by C.M Stevans which as well as being of direct relevance to my research also raises many interesting points concerning modern conceptions of value, currency, guarantee and the power of banks today.’