Has it really been 50 years since we were forcibly introduced to decimal currency?
Five decades since we stopped learning to calculate the complexities of pounds, shillings and pence and count in simple tens instead?
July 10, 1967 was a Monday, as was its anniversary this week. Monday was an ideal day to swap currencies, beginning a new week with new notes and coins. They weren't the ones we have now. We had one and two-dollar notes, as well as one cent, two cent and five cent coins, and they were bigger than those of today. Mind you, they were worth more.
On the day of changeover - and at no time since - the pound was exchanged for two dollars. That was what it was worth that day. It was when you tried to calculate the conversion of coinage that things got complicated and some items, confectionery, for example, became more expensive. The twopenny pack of chewing gum, containing four pieces, sold for two cents - instant inflation. Perhaps the pricing embarrassed Wrigleys because the product was phased out shortly after, leaving the 10-piece pack of Juicy Fruit, Arrowmint or PK the only options.
It was Keith Holyoake's government that conceived the idea of a change back in 1963 and they even had the opposition party, Labour, on their side. Politics was evidently very different in the 1960s. Rob Muldoon was under-secretary for finance and he was appointed to administer the conversion. He convinced everyone the change would be painless and simple. For many people, mainly older folk, it was far from easy, and while it meant calculations would now be a cinch, sometimes just by the shift of a decimal point, people who had spent their lives working with 12 pennies in a shilling, 20 shillings in a pound and 21 shillings in a guinea, found it very difficult.
Extensive ad campaigns made sure most of the country knew when and how it would happen, but no-one thought to actually ask the population what they thought. There were no referenda, and while you could vote for or against prohibition when you voted for your member of Parliament, there was no box to tick if you were ok - or not - with this huge change to metrics. Kiwis did, however, get to vote on selected coin and note designs, an obvious sop to democracy.
Decimal currency also heralded the start of the slippery slope into all things decimal, including weights and measures of every kind.
The Weights and Measures Amendment Act became law on December 14, 1976, but the process actually started in 1969 with the establishment of the Metric Advisory Board which, over seven years, made the change to the metric system.We went from pounds to kilograms, miles to kilometres, pints to litres and all measurements in between. Many people still thought in the old imperial measures so had to mentally convert from one to the other to comprehend. Suddenly your old car doing "the ton" had no significance. At 160kph it just didn't feel the same.
Oddly enough, some of the old measurements remain today. Television set sizes, for example, stayed in inches, and an aeroplane's altitude is still measured in feet. At the bar you can still hear people, young and old, order a "pint". But whatever happened to foolscap and quarto?
While decimalisation has made everything simpler, there was a certain thrill in discovering new terms of measurement back then. There were rods and perches, chains and furlongs, not to mention gills, quarts, pecks and bushells. We had grains and ounces, pounds, stone and hundredweight. Remember gallons? How else do you describe the capacity of a 44-gallon drum, so often used in raft races? And there were all those dearly departed traditional English measurements that added colour to many a folk song. The Barley Mow would be gibberish in metric, but it's the height of brewing romance in its original form, hogsheads and all, good luck to it.
Fifty years on we are stuck with the metric system of everything, while other places, like the US, remain firmly entrenched in their version of the imperial system. It's not quite the same, with different names for some measurements and many, like their gallon, a different measure entirely. America is not likely to change anytime soon, especially as we are now in an age of voter consultation and it's hard to try something new with no good reason.
Would we, for example, change to driving on the right hand side of the road, just for global consistency?
Dollars and cents have been a way of life for two generations and most of our population would find it hard to understand the imperial system, let alone why there was resistance to change from it.
Happy birthday decimal currency.