Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 73.djvu/271

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PREVIOUS to 1870 silver was reckoned as one of the precious metals, and possessed, by virtue of an unwritten agreement between the principal nations of the world, a definite value in terms of gold, viz., $1.29 per fine ounce. The metal was never purchasable at less than this figure, and usually commanded a premium, which, during the last century, ranged from nothing up to as high as ten per cent. It is now purely a commodity, like all the other metals except gold, and while the demand has greatly increased since the date just mentioned, the production has nearly quadrupled, and the price has fallen steadily until during last year it averaged 65 cents.

Curiously enough, since this great change silver has become one of the three metals (nickel and copper being the other two) that circulate as coins at a valuation far above their commodity price. This of course is due to the fact that they are by law legal tenders up to certain amounts, but the circumstance illustrates quite well the vagaries of human law when it comes into conflict with those of nature. The American quarter, the English shilling, the Latin Union franc, the German Mark, the Austrian Kroner, the Russian Rouble, all being coins that circulate freely at valuations ranging from twenty to twenty-five cents of our money, would bring, if melted and sold as bullion, little more than half those figures. On the other hand, the Indian rupee, of approximately the same weight and fineness, not being backed by any such law, circulates at its commodity value only, and its purchasing power in the markets of the world fluctuates with the price of the metal.

Silver sometimes occurs in nature in the metallic condition, and it is due to this fact that it has been known from very ancient times. But it is not found like gold, in grains or nuggets in the gravel of stream beds. Its principal habitat is the vein in rock, and hence it may be inferred that in antiquity the quantity possessed by man was much less than that of gold. To primitive man the latter metal was regarded, in a way, as a fragment, or at least a representative of the sun, while silver bore the same relation to the moon in his mind.

When the interior of China becomes well known, it is likely that the remains of very ancient silver mines will be found there, for the