There have been many times throughout history when humanity has been affected by an unforeseen and wide-reaching circumstance that would come to change the people and the history of the world. These days, once again, people from around the world face the fear and threat of something much larger than themselves. These events transcend culture and nations – no people are immune from such events occurring in other parts of the world. Let us look back at one such landmark event in 1816 known as “the year without a summer” and how it went on to reshape the world.
In April of 1815, a volcano erupted in the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. This eruption is considered the largest volcanic eruption in 1,300 years and changed history around the world. As with any volcanic eruption, particulates were sent into high into the atmosphere and blocked the Sun’s rays from reaching the surface of the planet. This causes a widespread cooling effect. The massive eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was powerful in and of itself. Still, its influence on the climate only compounded atmospheric effects from the prior eruptions of Mayon Volcano in the Philippines in 1814, an eruption on the Ryukyu Islands in Japan in 1813, and the 1812 eruptions of volcanos in Dutch East Indies and Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. Globally, individuals unaware of this multi-year chain of events were soon vastly affected by them.
People around the world in 1816, waiting for winter to end, were surprised when snow continued to fall into the spring. Even into the summer. Crops that would normally be grown and harvested never arose from the ground. The persistent cold weather also prevented seeds from being planted for the traditional growing seasons. A global weather event was occurring and people across the world were feeling the effects without even understanding why. This was, of course, long before television weather reports, radio news, or even the rapid communication capabilities of the telegram.
Across Asia, the unending cold killed vegetation and crops. Rice wasn’t harvested, and animals died off from starvation. For the province of Yunnan, China, the crop failure forced farmers to look for alternative crops, including poppy – which eventually led to the opium trade. In India, the monsoon season rains were greatly delayed by the weather and instead came late, causing massive flooding and cholera epidemics.
Europe was especially hit hard by this disaster. The Napoleonic Wars had just ended, already leaving a trail of destruction across much of the continent. With the especially cold, rain-filled year of 1816, food became scarce across the Europe. Riots erupted across many European lands as starving citizens looted grain stores to feed themselves and their families. In Ireland, wheat, oats, and potato crops all failed, and diseases such as typhus broke out, causing over 44,000 deaths in Ireland alone. This led to Irish migration and resettlement in the United States. In Germany, heavy rainfall caused rivers to flood and diseases to run rampant. Due to crop failure, there wasn’t enough to feed horses and many were slaughtered for meat, leaving a great need for transportation. As a result of the scarcity of horses, Karl Drais looked for a mechanical horseless alternative and invented the predecessor to the bicycle. In Switzerland, while a national emergency was called for the country, the rich continued to holiday in their summer estates by Lake Geneva. The relentless rain caused many to retreat indoors, and a writing contest initiated to pass the time between some friends led Mary Shelley to write The Modern Prometheus, a work more widely known as Frankenstein. Lord Byron wrote A Fragment, which later inspired The Vampyre – a precursor to Dracula. Fatality rates from the famine and related epidemics will never be fully known, but according to Switzerland more than 100,000 died across Europe in 1816 – double the typical death rate for that nation as compared to other years in that era.
1990 10 Yn Olympic Games-Cycling, China People’s Republic PCGS PR70DCAM. PCGS Population 1. Finest known. Click image to enlarge.
In North America, the long winter never seemed to cease in New England. The weather would change from normal summertime temperatures in the 60s and 70s to freezing within mere hours. Snow occurred into June, the soil remained frozen until August, and what crops were planted died in higher-elevation farms due to exposure to frost and enduring cold. Ice was still on rivers and lakes from Pennsylvania to as far south as Virginia until August. The price of grain rose from 12 cents per bushel in 1815 to 92 cents per bushel in 1816 as a result of failed crops. Families unable to produce food to feed themselves and survive in New England and New York relocated to new territories that were far more habitable and could sustain farming. Tens of thousands of people moved west settling in Indiana, Illinois, and other areas. Indiana became a state in December 1816 and Illinois in 1818, partly because of the increased population from this event. One family that left their home in Vermont and relocated to Palmyra, New York, was that of Joseph Smith, who went on to write the Book of Mormon and established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This was just one of many religious movements founded on this event.
The cascading effects from the year without a summer later went on to change numismatics and are incalculable. From the movement of the population in the United States to the coinage of the Mormons, to the opium trade in China, to a multitude of other landmark events stemming from the unusual global weather patterns of 1816, all had some effect on numismatics and can be linked to this event.
Regarding how numismatics was directly impacted, 1816 proved an interesting year for the United States Mint, which produced only one 1816-dated denomination – one-cent coins. Production of other coins, all occurring in the first weeks of 1816, were 1815-dated quarters and half dollars. Unfortunately, a fire damaged the Philadelphia Mint in January of 1816, halting the production of all coinage. When the mint was back up and running, only cents would be produced, at least for the remainder of the year; surely the United States economy, then stunted by the year without a summer, didn’t require much in the way of new, higher-denomination coinage. In 1817, the United States Mint once again produced cents and half dollars but no other coins due to the continued economic woes partly caused by this event.
In Great Britain, economic and political factors caused by the Napoleonic Wars led to the instability of the British financial system. In order to make Britain’s financial system sound again and introduce much-needed coins into circulation, the Coinage Act of 1816 was passed, reducing the amount of silver in various coinage denominations. Large quantities of sixpence, shillings, and half crowns were struck in 1816 and 1817 to replace the already scarce coinage and tokens in use in Britain. This reduction in silver and gold weights, along with the Corn Laws of 1815 (tariffs for import of grain) and scarcity of crops caused from the protracted cold, greatly increased the price of food.
1816 1/2Cr S-3788, Great Britain, PCGS MS65+. PCGS Population 1. Three higher. Click image to enlarge.
In France, the newly restored monarchy produced large quantities of coinage from King Louis XVIII to restore and replace the money of Napoleon. In other parts of Europe, coinage was not produced in some states, while the production of others seemed unchanged.
The events of 1816 caused distress, hardship, sickness, displacement, and death to so many could not have been prevented by any individual or government. Yet, across the world, people felt the effects of the year without a summer. For people in the face of hardship, perseverance occurs, and great things can happen. Culturally, scientifically, spiritually, and economically the world changed as people created solutions, wrote stories, experimented, and adapted to the new reality looking forward to a better future. Another event like that of 1816 can certainly happen again and might just be occurring today in a different form. Who knows how this will change the world and perhaps reshape numismatics?
- Wikipedia: Year Without a Summer
- USA Today: 200 years ago, we endured a 'year without a summer' by Doyle Rice
- The Guardian: How the year without summer gave us dark masterpieces by Ian Ritchie
- Mental Floss: 15 Facts About 'The Year Without a Summer' by Dennis Mersereau
- Cambridge Journal: The Economic Crisis of 1816–1817 and Its Social and Political Consequences by John D. Post
- Wikipedia: Great Recoinage of 1816