How much did you say? Converting Dutch Historic Currencies

Whenever you venture into the research of your ancestor's possessions, you typically hit this question pretty soon: How much was that in current-day money? What does it mean that your great-great-grandfather bought a house for 300 guilders? Keep on reading to find out what's a guilder, how it evolved over the centuries and how you can calculate the conversion.

Ever since the Middle Ages the Netherlands used a coin named "guilder". The name refers to a golden (gilded) Florentine coin. The Florentine origin of the guilder remained visible in the symbol for the guilder, which is an "f" or "fl", and the old word "florijn". That the coin had the same name for centuries can lead to the false impression that its value and the way it used to be split up in smaller coins was the same for centuries as well. This, however, is not the case.

In the 1600s, every one of the seven provinces of the young Dutch Republic would have its own mint and produce their own guilders. In that time, a silver or gold coin was worth as much as its weight. There was no standard weight for a coin and some mints would mix the gold and silver with other, less valuable metals, hence devaluating the coins. To add to the general confusion, criminals had soon found out that you could easily scrape some metal off existing coins to make illegal new ones. In short, you never new how much your guilder was worth. Therefore, a new occupation arose, that of coin weigher. Coin weighers would travel around to weigh the coins to make fair trade possible. If a forger was caught, he or she would be sentenced to death.

From the 1650s on, a single value for the guilder was established. Still, many provinces kept on minting their own coins until the 1850s! In the 1750s all coins got a corrugated side to prevent the clipping of metal from the sides.

Until 1816 there was no fixed subdivision of the guilder into smaller coins. Customs in this regard varied from province to province, leading to a large variety of smaller coins. The most common you will find in pre-1816 documents are:

  • stuiver: 1/20 guilder
  • duit: 1/8 stuiver
  • vierduitstuk or plak: 1/2 stuiver
  • gulden: guilder
  • dukaat: 5 guilders
  • daalder: 30 stuivers / 1.5 guilders
  • rijksdaalder: 50 stuivers / 2.5 guilders

In 1816 the decimal system was introduced. The guilder was now divided in 100 cents, the cent being a new coin. From this date on, the official coins were the standarized coins mentioned below, although old regional variants still circulated up until the 1850s. From the 1860s on, bank notes were introduced. Guilders, coins, and notes were replaced by euros on January 1, 2002.

Common names for coins and notes you can find in texts after 1816:

  • halfje : 1/2 cent
  • cent: 1/100 guilder
  • halve stuiver: 2.5 cents
  • stuiver: 5 cents
  • dubbeltje: 10 cents
  • kwartje: 25 cents
  • halve gulden: 50 cents
  • gulden: guilder
  • rijksdaalder: 2.5 guilders
  • vijfje: 5 guilders
  • tientje: 10 guilders

However, knowing the names of the coins does not reveal their value in modern-day currencies. So how do you go about calculating that? Actually it is not that complicated. A common rough approach involves the following steps:

  1. Determine the amount in guilders you want to convert.
  2. Look up the average daily, monthly, or annual wage for the time frame you are researching.
  3. Express your amount in the average daily, monthly, or annual wage.
  4. Look up the average wage of your home country.
  5. Calculate the same percentage of that wage.
  6. Voilà, there you have your conversion to your modern-day currency.

A small example to see this in action:

Your ancestor bought a house in 1730 for 1,200 guilders. The average daily wage in 1730 for an unskilled worker was 19 stuivers a day, which amounts to 5,928 stuivers or 296 guilders a year. Thus, the cost of the house was equivalent to 4,05 times a year salary of an unskilled worker. Today such a worker in the Netherlands would earn about €17,000. If we multiply €17,000 by 4,05 we get a total of €68,850.  We now know that 1,200 guilders from 1730 amounts up to roughly €68,850 today.

The above method aims to give you a feel for how the cost of something was related to the average wage in the time your ancestor lived, and how much the same average income is today in the Netherlands. We feel this makes more sense than to calculate the purchasing power of your ancestor and comparing it to that of an average person today. We feel that "purchasing power" is a concept one cannot easily relate to. However, knowing that the price of your ancestor's house felt to him like 4 years wages is easy to grasp.