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How Merchants of Venice Calculated Exchange Rates: Echoes

Echoes: Exchange Rates
Eighteenth-century precursors to exchange-rate calculators. Source: Kress Collection of Business and Economics, Harvard Business School

By Christine Riggle

Determining the exchange rate from dollars to euros for that trip you're taking to Italy now takes a matter of seconds with an online currency converter. But that wasn't always the case.

Like today’s businesspeople, the merchants of the past required timely financial information to conduct their affairs profitably. And access to currency-exchange rates was critical.

Exchange-rate currents -- precursors of modern financial newspapers -- published the local rates at which foreign bills of exchange were bought and sold in the major trading centers in Europe and later the U.S.

These lists appear to have first come into use at the quarterly exchange fairs held in Europe in the 16th century. At these fairs, rates were set by a group of bankers and made public by general announcements. They were later published on paper to avoid disputes.

By the 17th century, currents with the names and rates of exchange of trading cities were issued weekly or biweekly in all of the major European commercial centers.

Lists often included an easily recognizable woodcut or engraved scene at the head, which varied depending on the city and the year. For instance, the Venetian lists include depictions of the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco, and lists from Genoa include scenes of the Borsa on the Piazza Banchi and the Loggia dei Mercanti. See the attached for more detail.

(Christine Riggle is the special collections librarian for printed materials at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this post: Christine Riggle at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at


-0- Jan/12/2012 16:18 GMT

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