Lately I find myself wondering, if I was going to time travel back to the year 1800 in North America, what could I take with me to use in the place of currency to trade for goods? The tricky part is, ideally I would like to take advantage of inflation to increase the value of my money. For instance, $1 in the year 1800 had the purchasing power of around $14 in the year 2000 (http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/). So if I could bring back currency from the year 2000, it would greatly increase in purchasing power from its face value. The problem is of course, I can not bring back modern currency because it is, well, modern. What I need is something that I can bring back that will not stand out as inappropriate and draw attention to me as a time traveler.
The choice of some basic precious metal like gold immediately comes to mind, and while it would work, it unfortunately loses its modern higher value when brought into the past, effectively undoing the advantage. The price of an ounce of gold in December 2000 was around $275 (http://www.finfacts.ie/Private/curency/goldmarketprice.htm), in 1800 that same ounce of gold would sell for about $19. That $19 of 1800 money had the purchasing power of about $170 of 2000 money, so you come out behind.
So perhaps what I should be looking for instead is some basic commodity that is cheap and plentiful in modern times, but was more scarce and valuable in 1800. Maybe even something that can more easily made to a high quality today, like perhaps iron or steel. I am not sure of the current and past prices of steel, and while there might be an advantage to be had on industrial scales, it is not something that could be easily carried and traded at the general store for basic supplies (is it?). Another possible contender would be salt. I have heard that it was sometimes used as a currency in the past. Let’s see, according to http://www.clarkemuseum.com/html/salt_works.html before refrigeration salt was used for preserving meat, and during the early parts of the Civil War the north blockaded salt shipments from England from reaching the south, forcing the the creation of new and expensive means of harvesting salt from springs. It states “Salt prices escalated so high, that workers were paid in salt rather than money. Prices rose from $1.25 per bushel of 50 pounds in 1861 to $50 by the end of the war.” These time periods are a little later target than my 1800, but may still be relevant. I see that a 50lb bag of fine sea salt goes for about $11 wholesale currently, so that might be a reasonable option, if not a little bulky. (As an aside, a good history of salt can be found at http://www.saltinstitute.org/38.html)
So other that salt, what other good options might there be that have not thought of? Maybe something more compact? How about modern metal hand tools? I think they are relatively cheap and high quality, if you chose carefully to avoid items that would be out of place in the past. You can buy some nice knives pretty cheap these days, but stainless steel wasn’t invent until the 1900’s. I wonder how a 1800 merchant would react to stainless steel? Blue Jeans were not invented until the 1870’s, maybe some other clothing items, or even just some good unbleached cotton fabric? I poked around http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/ at other mineral price histories (thought they only go back to 1900) and although I didn’t read every one (there are lots) it looks like most have only gone up in value.
Please let me know your ideas. Something that has dropped in value significantly, that would not be out of place in 1800. I chose 1800 somewhat randomly and I think that the answers would change dramatically for other time periods, or geographic locations.