J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Presidential Ice Cream Order

According to this report, today as the third Sunday in July is National Ice Cream Day. Furthermore, in 1984 Ronald Reagan issued another order designating this whole month as National Ice Cream Month. And none of that should limit me: as a Bostonian, I consider every day to be Ice Cream Day. [Shout outs to Wally’s Wicked Good Ice Cream, Cabot’s, Lizzy’s, and J.P. Licks.]

Last week Lee Wright at The History List asked me about a statement that shows up in many feature articles this time of year that President George Washington spent a great deal on ice cream. Lee found statements of the current value of that purchase ranging from “over $5,000” to “about $100,000”—on ice cream in 1790. But what’s the historical basis of that claim?

I followed dribbles on the web back through Paul Dickson’s Great American Ice Cream Book (1973) to mid-century trade journals with titles like Confectionary and Ice Cream World and The Ice Cream Trade Journal. Several of those sources say the merchant who billed Washington for about $200 worth of ice cream was “Mr. Cove of Chatham Street.”

In fact, he was Joseph Corré, a native of France, reportedly a former cook for a British army officer who stayed in New York after the war. He ran nine notices in the New York Daily Advertiser in May-June 1790 thanking patrons for buying ice cream and ice from him. He sold out of his house at 55 Wall Street.

In May 1791 Corré opened a theater on State Street, presenting The Beaux’ Strategem and The Lying Valet. His Columbia Gardens and Mount Vernon Gardens businesses became notable values for plays and concerts in early New York, and he also appears in histories of the American circus.

According to this catalogue page, Mount Vernon owns Corré’s receipt for £51.6s.2d of ice cream and “mouls” (molds) delivered to Washington’s household from June to August 1790. I also saw mention in an antiques magazine of another Corré receipt for the President’s kitchen for earlier that spring, so he was a regular supplier. I don’t know when Corré’s ice cream receipt became public knowledge, but it looks like that happened about 150 years after he wrote it out.

Did George Washington eat that much ice cream? Not by himself. Rather, ice cream was part of how he and Martha entertained guests, officials, their wives, and members of the public at regular “levees,” or receptions. Abigail Adams described them in a letter to her older sister, Mary Cranch, on 27 July 1790:
mrs washington…has fix’d on every fryday 8 oclock. I attended upon the last, [with] mrs smith & charles. I found it quite a crowded Room. the form of Reception is this, the servants announce—& col [David] Humphries or mr [Tobias] Lear—receives every Lady at the door, & Hands her up to mrs washington to whom she makes a most Respectfull curtzey and then is seated without noticeing any of the rest of the company. the Pressident then comes up and speaks to the Lady, which he does with a grace dignity & ease, that leaves Royal George far behind him. the company are entertaind with Ice creems & Lemonade, and retire at their pleasure performing the same ceremony when they quit the Room.
Adams put a similar description, also including “Ice creams,” in her 6 Feb 1791 letter to Cotton Tufts.

(Those period quotations negate a statement in Benson J. Lossing’s Mary and Martha: “Ice-cream, the favorite delicacy of today, was then unknown.” But that book about the women in Washington’s life has long been recognized as hopeful myth. In fact, Mount Vernon has found records of the Washingtons buying ice cream equipment as early as 1784.)

The next question is how much £51.6s.2d. was worth in American dollars in 1790 and would be worth today? And that’s quite a complex question. In fact, examining how early American money worked is a very good way to realize that colonial life was by no means simple. There wasn’t enough specie (gold and silver coins) circulating in the economy, so most people paid off bills with paper notes whose values fluctuated depending on who had issued them, how far away the issuing institution or person was, and other factors. Most articles suggest the President’s ice cream purchase amounted to $200, which is probably a low approximation.

The next issue is how to calculate changes in currency between 1790 and today. The Measuring Worth website has been developed out of John J. McCusker’s monograph How Much Is That in Real Money? But there’s still a problem with equivalencies: because of technology, changing demands and supplies, the move away from coerced labor, and other factors, the real prices of different goods and services have changed at different rates. For example, unskilled labor is much more expensive these days while cloth is much cheaper. When I enter “£51” and “1790” into the Measuring Worth page for “Computing ‘Real Value’ Over Time With a Conversion Between U.K. Pounds and U.S. Dollars, 1774 to Present,” the result is:
When using the CPI/RPI, the (average) value in 2010 of £51 from 1790 is $6830.00. The range of values is from $0.00 to $9250.00. This answer is better if the subject is a consumer good or something else of interest to an individual.
Ice cream is of abiding interest to me, but I can’t say that fact makes narrowing a range between zero and $9,000 any easier. But I think we can eliminate the “about $100,000” figure cited above.

Because of modern refrigeration, ice cream is probably much cheaper relative to other foods than it was in Washington’s time. That means even if £51 in 1790 is on average about $6,800 today, I bet $6,800 today could buy even more ice cream than £51 bought for the Presidential mansion in 1790.


Charles Bahne said...

I've found documentation in several places that, in Massachusetts at least, the conversion rate from pounds to dollars in the 1780s or 1890s was £3 = $10.
Using that rate, £51.6s.2d. would be the equivalent of $171.03.

Charles Bahne said...

Sorry, make that "1780s or 1790s"!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie. That's the conversion I've been using for pre-Revolutionary times, when New England was still part of the British Empire. But I wasn't sure whether it still held in 1790s New York—was the pound they used determined by local banks or creditors or a separate government? The Measuring Worth website suggested that £1 was worth something like $4.50 that year, but I'm not sure of the basis for that calculation, either.

Most modern news stories retelling this anecdote state simply $200 worth, based presumably on some previous retelling, since that means the writer doesn't have to deal with either pounds or inflation.

Joe Bauman said...

It's a challenging task, calculating the cost of the ice cream the Washingtons served. The $6,000-plus figure sounds high to me. The ingredients would have been plentiful, and the labor -- especially if forced -- would have been cheap. The question is, how much ice cream was involved? I suppose we can't get at that very easily.

J. L. Bell said...

None of the paperwork seems to specify a quantity of ice cream, alas. And I suspect most of the cost/value was in the cold: all the ice and infrastructure needed to preserve it into the summer months.

Charles Bahne said...

The pound-to-dollar conversion that I quoted is based on various financial documents that I've seen. All are from Massachusetts in the post-Revolutionary era, and all are consistent about the conversion factor. One source is Paul Revere's ledger books from his businesses. If I recall correctly, he changed everything suddenly, and without comment, sometime in the 1780s. One day he was using pounds; the next day, dollars. But if you made the calculations yourself, you got $3.33-1/3 per pound.

Another source that I found was the budget, and cost of building, the Massachusetts State House. That dates from 1795-1798, which does seem rather late to be using British currency, especially for official government purposes.

Unfortunately, I didn't note any of the other sources that I found over the years. And their applicability to New York may be questionable, as J.L. notes.

J. L. Bell said...

Another source that shows the £10:$33 1/3 ratio is Gen. George Washington's expense notebook. He started recording in pounds, then shifted to dollars as that became the Continental currency. He recorded giving a spy $333 1/3 to go into Boston, or a round £100.

I believe that standard ratio was based on the amount of silver in a British pound and a Spanish dollar. The real problem in assessing purchasing power, I think, is converting from such specie to paper money and notes. A pound of silver was a pound of silver, but notes with the same face value could vary in purchasing power.

J. L. Bell said...

Stephanie Dyson of the Massachusetts Archives alerted me to a February 1795 law that tried to put Massachusetts bills back on a sound footing. In 1839 the Salem historian Joel B. Felt wrote of that transition:

“It enjoins that for such a liquidation, a loan be made, and books be opened for subscribers. It allows that subscriptions may be made in consolidated and army notes; and in those given for specie in 1777; in certificates, issued by Nathaniel Appleton, the United States’ commissioner of loans in Massachusetts, and in bills of the new emission, which began to circulate in 1780. The last paper is to be settled for at the rate of four for one of specie. Though the proportionate loss on this currency was far less than that on what were termed Continental bills, a similar principle of liquidation was applied to both. The same salvo for not coming up to the full nominal value of such notes, bore comparatively on one case as well as another. Many bills of the new emission, like those of the old, were kept back, in anticipation of a more favorable exchange, and thus passed over the opportunity for their redemption. As both of them are occasionally seen, imagination views them as fallen leaves, which, in the storm of revolution, gave protection and nourishment to the blossoms of rich and durable fruit.”

And that was supposed to make things simpler!

G. Lovely said...

Translating the meaning of money across centuries always strikes me as a fool's errand. The only way I know to give the question any real meaning is to put it in terms of what else you could have done with the same amount of money at the time, and while it only yields an impression, it also often illustrates the shifting of relative values across time.

In 'Jefferson and Monticello, Biography of a Builder', Jack McLaughlin grapples with the challenge of monetary translation at length.

He notes that in 1772 a skilled workman made around 20 shillings a week (making GW's 51 pounds a year's wages asuming no inflation to 1790). McLaughlin notes that a pound of tea cost Jefferson 22 shillings, or more than a week's wages for a skilled workman. I just checked my cupboard, and a pound of the 'fancy' tea I have in there would be about $26, or about a half an hour's wages for a craftsman today.

I suspect the fact is changing tastes and changes in economic relationships and efficiencies (the end of slavery, improved transport, automation) put a simple dollar value comparison forever beyond our grasp.