The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World by William L Silber - review by Kathleen Burk

Kathleen Burk

When the Shine Came Off

The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World


Princeton University Press 340pp £24 order from our bookshop

The inspiration for this book was the attempt by three brothers, Nelson Bunker, Herbert and Lamar Hunt, with the financial aid of some Saudis with supposed links to the Saudi royal family, to corner the market in silver. Indeed, this episode fills nearly a third of the book. It is a lively and sometimes rollicking tale, one reason why William Silber, a professor of finance and economics at New York University, decided to write about it. He places the story in the context of American politics and the wider history of silver, and girds it with rigorous scholarship, which readers will discover by turning to the back of the book. There they will not only find a great amount of detail about the various acts and regulations dealing with silver, but also learn that the Egyptians prized silver for both its value and its medicinal properties, and that the earliest coin-like objects discovered by archaeologists date from the middle of the Iron Age, in other words 900–800 BC (I had always believed Herodotus when he attributed the creation of coinage to King Croesus in Lydia around 600 BC).

Silber begins with the so-called ‘Crime of 1873’, in which, through nefarious political manoeuvring, Senator John Sherman of Ohio succeeded in establishing gold as the sole legal currency by removing silver from the 1873 Coinage Act. In doing so, he overturned the decision of the first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, that both gold and silver be monetary standards. For this, the political leaders and denizens of the seven ‘Silver States’, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, never forgave Sherman; senators from those states spent the next ninety years trying to remedy the economic damage. If silver were not needed to back the currency, its price would fall; the answer, therefore, was to ensure that silver retained this position and that the US government would guarantee the price of domestically produced silver at a handsome level. In April 1933 the government of Franklin Roosevelt agreed to do just that. Silber observes wryly, ‘April is the cruelest month according to the poet T S Eliot, but not for the silver bloc in Congress.’

Along the way there were sufferers. One was China, whose currency was based on silver. The Silver Purchase Act of 1934 instructed the secretary of the Treasury to purchase enough silver to ensure that it formed the basis of a quarter of US monetary reserves. The high price offered by

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