The basic unit of money in Dublin in 1904 was the British pound sterling—as it still is today in the U.K. Pounds were divided into shillings (no longer existent), and shillings into pence. Various silver, copper, and gold coins, and paper notes, represented amounts of these basic units.
The relations of the three units were not decimal, but based on the troy system of measuring precious metals: twelve pence made a shilling, and twenty shillings made a pound, so every pound was worth 240 pence. Abbreviated symbols too were nonintuitive: pounds were written as £ (from Latin libra, pounds), shillings as s. (from Latin solidus, a medieval coin), and pence as d. (from Latin denarius, another coin). The £ was normally placed before the number and the other symbols after, so that a sum of four pounds, three shillings, and ten pence would be entered in a register as £4 3s. 10d. In Lestrygonians Bloom thinks of money in general as "L.s.d."
More condensed notation could eliminate the minor symbols, following £ with a string of numbers, as is done in writing amounts of decimal currency (e.g., U.S. $24.65). Ithaca compiles Bloom’s budget for June 16 in this way, writing his total debits and credits as "£ 2.19.3." Another informal method of notation, commonly used for marking prices in shop windows, listed simply the number of shillings, followed by a slash and either a dash or the number of pence. Ithaca mentions “Kino’s 11/- Trousers” (i.e., 11 shillings a pair), and “three prizes of 10/-, 5/-, and 2/6 respectively” offered by a Dublin newspaper for the best original poems (i.e., 10 shillings, 5 shillings, and 2 ½ shillings). This slash notation could also include pounds. Ithaca notes that Bloom's savings account contains "18/14/6 (eighteen pounds, fourteen shillings and sixpence, sterling)," and it indicates details of his life insurance policy in the same way: "coming into force at 25 years as with profit policy of 430 pounds, 462/10/0 and 500 pounds at 60 years or death, 65 years or death and death, respectively, or with profit policy (paidup) of 299/10/0 together with cash payment of 133/10/0, at option."
Once the basic structure is clear, more confusion beckons. Just as U.S. money is based on a structure of dollars and cents but trades in pennies, two-cent pieces (formerly), nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars, dollar coins and bills, and multi-dollar coins and bills, many of which have slang names ("buck," "two bits," "ten-spot"), pre-1971 British currency was denominated in £.s.d. but circulated in a bewildering variety of physical instantiations, most of which had slang names on the streets. Here are some of the coins and banknotes, with their slang and £.s.d. equivalents:
|"Five pound note" or coin (slang “fiver")||£5|
|"Guinea" (rare as actual coins)||21s.|
|"Poundnote" (slang “quid”) or coin (slang "sovereign")||20s.|
|Half-pound note (slang “ten bob”) or coin ("half sovereign")||10s.|
|"Crown" (slang “dollar”)||5s.|
|"Florin" (slang “two bob”)||2s.|
|"Shilling" (slang “bob”)||12d.|
|"Sixpence" (slang “tanner”)||6d.|
|"Fourpence" (slang “groat”)||4d.|
|"Threepence" (slang “joey” or "threepenny bit")||3d.|
|"Twopence" (slang “half-groat”)||2d.|
|"Penny" (slang “copper”)||1d.|
|"Halfpenny" (pron. “hayp’ny”)||½d.|
Nearly every one of these names appears in the novel, as the boldface type indicates. Farthings are mentioned often as the smallest conceivable unit of money: "I'd rather have you without a farthing"; "Not as much as a farthing to purchase a night's lodgings"; "exactable to the uttermost farthing"; "she never left us a farthing." Bloom thinks of £5 as a substantial sum: "Thinks he'll win in Answers, poets' picture puzzle. We hand you crisp five pound note." All of the prices and expenditures mentioned in the novel fall between these two extremes.
About the twenty-one-shilling “guinea,” Gifford observes that it is “not only more money than the twenty-shilling quid (pound), it is also more fashionable, a gentlemanly sum.” Although the actual coins had apparently not been minted since the early years of the nineteenth century and were seldom encountered, prices in high-class establishments were nevertheless typically quoted in guineas rather than pounds. The coined version of the pound, the “sovereign,” had its own appeal, being a nickel-sized round struck from 22 carat gold (for a gold content of 7.3224 grams, or 0.2354 Troy ounces). It derived its name from the image of the king on the obverse, and Joyce sometimes plays on this association, as in Telemachus when Buck Mulligan cries “Four omnipotent sovereigns” and begins singing about “coronation day” with a Cockney accent.
Much difficulty attends the important business of asking what these various units and coins mean to the people of the novel in terms of purchasing power and wealth. Inflation has steadily and massively eroded the value of the British pound, as it inevitably does to all paper currencies not linked to fixed amounts of gold or silver. (Britain came off the gold standard to finance World War I.) One pound is an almost negligible amount of money today, but it was a substantial sum in 1904. At the turn of the 21st century, a pound was worth perhaps 150 times as much as at the turn of the 20th century.
In his introduction to Ulysses Annotated, Don Gifford attempts to approximate the relative value of some of the sums mentioned in the novel. Among other things, he observes that Stephen’s monthly salary, identified in Nestor as "three twelve" (£3 12s.), is a comfortable if not princely income—or would be comfortable if he were not “wildly prodigal” with his money on June 16, and presumably other days when he has money in his pocket. In Ulysses (1987), Hugh Kenner observes that "He uses up about a pound, drinking and treating, in a day when stout was twopence a pint and one could live on less than a pound a week" (16). Stephen's indifference to money, particularly when he is drunk, is evident in Eumaeus when he reaches into his pockets to lend Corley a penny or two. He cannot keep different coins straight in the darkness and comes up with coins worth 30 times as much: "Those are halfcrowns, man." Stephen gives one of them to Corley anyway.
Bloom’s assets as detailed in Ithaca—savings of £18 14s. 6d., a life insurance policy of £500, and "certificate of possession of 900 pounds, Canadian 4 percent (inscribed) government stock"—make him more than usually comfortable by the standards of the 1904 Dublin middle class. By the 150-to-1 formula, his 900 pounds worth of railway stock would be equivalent to £135,000 in 2000.