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Where can I find historical gold, silver, and copper values?

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I'm trying to put together a graph of intrinsic versus minted value of coinage from 1792-date.


Does anyone know where I can find data on copper, silver, and gold values back to 1792 in as much detail as possible?


Thanks in advance...Mike

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Mike, I was actually planning on doing something very similar next time I got the chance. I was actually going to add indexing for inflation, too. All this talk about hard money and fiat currency has been very interesting and educational.

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Kitco has charts going back to 1792 and that is what I have used to do exactly what you are planning.


So save me the time and post it, please. :)


(indexed for inflation --> BRILLIANT!)

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This strikes me as a very complex exercise.


Does Kitco use government prices for gold and silver or does it use London commercial prices?


Will you compare the price of gold to silver or against some other "fixed" price?


Will you compare the price of copper to gold or silver?


I'd be very interested to learn your methodology.

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Really the goal of the graph would be to identify those times when the intrinsic/bullion value of the metal exceeds the face value, i.e. when would it have been viable to make money from melting our coinage. In addition, the amount of undervalue (i.e. fiat) would also be fairly evident.


I was envisioning a graph for every type (i.e. half cent, cent, nicekel, etc.) with $ vertically and time horizontally. Each coin type (i.e. coins with the exact same weight and makeup) would have two lines -- once for bullion value and another for face value. Now that I think about it, neither value needs to be indexed to inflation -- we are interested in the decision at the time, not at a time in the future.


Here's what that graph would tell us: When the "bullion value" line is "above" the "face value" line, melting of coinage would quickly become a money-maker, whereas when the "face value" line is "below" the "bullion value" line, the coin becomes undervalued (i.e. a measure of "fiat").


Your questoin on the source of the gold price brings up an interesting point -- I wonder how much of a difference there would be not only between London and NY, but even NY and other parts of the country (for instance New Orleans). First off, I can imagine back in the early days (i.e. pre-telegraph times) it took weeks to even get the value of gold, so I imagine there was quite a difference in dollar value across the US. I'm not sure how I could address this....


Just some food for thought....Mike

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My main research focus is on the pre-Civil War period, so I can't speak much about the second half of the 19th century (but I think the major dynamics were pretty similar).


In the first half of the 19th century, the main global bullion market was in London and gold in the US mostly made its way to New York where it was held in readiness to be shipped to London (or sometimes Paris, if the price was higher there). I'm not as familiar with the silver market, but much of it was shipped to China/India and to Europe.


(I really don't think there was much in the way of an intra-US gold market. I think any differences in the price of gold or silver between New York and New Orleans would have mostly reflected the costs of transportation and the time value of money - especially once you had mints and sub-treasuries in both cities.)


(If you're interested, the US Government kept track of how much silver and gold was imported and exported and the data is available in various annual reports of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Mint. I've seen the data in annual form, but I don't know if it exists in monthly form, which would be very useful for your research.)


If your research goal is to identify the times when it was profitable to melt silver and gold coins and sell the resulting bullion, then I think you have to keep in mind two very important factors: 1) What am I paying with? and, 2) What am I selling for?


For example, during the California Gold Rush, the supply of gold expanded rapidly (exacerbated by the gold from the Australian Gold Rush). While the US and British official prices for gold stayed the same, the price of gold compared to silver fell, which is why it was profitable to melt US silver coins in, say 1850-1851, ship them to London and sell them for gold in London. (You wouldn't have sold the silver in the US, because the main buyer of silver would have been the Mint, which would have paid the official government price.)


I think that if you tried to factor in purchasing bullion with State banknotes, you'd drive yourself crazy in short order - there were too many of them. In any event, the banknotes of the best banks traded at face value, which was their theoretical gold value. (However, if gold sold at a premium to the face value of banknotes, and something like Niles' Register reported the fluctuations in that premium on a regular basis, then you might have some useful data.)


The merchants of the time were very sophisticated and the bullion trade was a fairly big business in the early and mid 19th century. I have an article from (I believe) the 1850s that details all the costs involved with shipping gold to London (transportation, insurance, assay charges, etc.) and essentially tells a merchant how to calculate when it's profitable to ship gold to London.


Conceptually, I think it would be fairly easy to compare gold to silver (you would need the US and UK government prices of gold and silver and the market price of both in London).


I'm not sure you need to bother much with copper, however. Up until the Civil War, it wasn't legal tender in the US (I'm not sure about Britain) and I understand that a major use of copper cents and half cents was as various parts of machinery rather than as money. Also, I don't think the US had much in the way of domestic supplies of copper at the time, so I think we bought most of our copper in London.

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This is an interesting project, and in my opinion the most interesting period would be during the civil war. There you might have trouble with the data since the official price of gold was $20.67 per ounce, but the price in "greenbacks" fluctuated with each battle won or lost by the Union. I am not sure where you might find the record of those price swings but it would be interesting.


The other interesting thing you might find is the historical ratio of 16-1 on silver and gold. You hear lots of people talking about that as a justification why silver is undervalued and should go up since now the ratio is 54-1 or so. The problem is that the 16-1 was based on the official prices, but in cases where a silver dollar only contained 30 cents in silver, that 16-1 became 48-1 pretty fast! It would be interesting to see, but my guess would be that the 16-1 ratio hasn't held since maybe the 1870s.

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Monetary value of the standard silver dollar was based on the 16 : 1 ratio. In theory, the US Mints should have struck 16 oz of silver into coin for every ounce of gold struck; however, this was rarely if ever done in practice. In the 1930s the government's goal was to have a ratio of 4 : 1 in reserve, but never reached this because of the gold inflow attracted by the above market fixed price of $35/oz.


$1.2929 : $20.6667 = 15.9848 : 1


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Actually, the information on the gold value of greenbacks during the Civil War is pretty readily available.


For summary information, Fractional Money by Neil Carothers has a table that shows: a) the annual average ratio of silver to gold, 1830 to 1879; b) annual average gold value of the silver in a dollar of fractional (less than $1) coins, 1830 to 1879; and, c) annual average gold value of greenbacks, 1862 to 1879.


For more detailed information, A History of the Greenbacks by Wesley Clair Mitchell has an appendix that has two tables. The first shows, on a monthly basis, the highest, average and lowest gold price of $100 in greenbacks for 1862 to 1865; and, the second shows, the daily highest and lowest value in gold of $100 in greenbacks for 1862 to 1865.


I'm pretty sure there are other sources available, too.

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