|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
North American Coins
The early settlers of the North American continent at first had little need of struck coins, all transactions being conducted by a form of barter. As life in the new colonies became more complicated, however, and traders began to arrive from overseas bringing their goods to sell, some form of currency became necessary. Since the English government did not, at the time, provide the colonists with a coinage of their own, many types of coins were used to pay these traders, English, French, Dutch and Spanish currency being particularly prevalent in the ports along the eastern seaboard. Spanish dollars or eight-real pieces, together with their fractions, struck at the mints of Mexico City and Lima in New Spain were by far the most popular of all the coins to be found in circulation and were readily acceptable. It is upon these `pieces of eight' that the subsequent coinage of the United States was based, the two pillars with their entwined mottoes on the reverse of the coin being thought to be the origin of the dollar sign. Throughout the colonial period of American history the Spanish dollars remained the principal form of currency and it was not until 1857 that these coins were officially demonetized.
Apart from the foreign coins that circulated, payment was made in many other forms, the most general being `wampum' or strings of shells as used by the Indians. In 1637, `It was ordered that wampamege should passe at 6 a penny for any summe under 12d', and again, in 1640, `It is ordered that white wampamege shall passe at 4 a penny and blewe at 2 a penny and not above 12D at any time except the receiver desire more'. In addition to wampum, musket bullets `of a full bore shall passe currently for a farthing apeece, provided that noe man be compelled to take above XIId., att a tyme in them'. Horses, sheep, pigs, goats, asses, furs, grain and fish were also readily exchanged. The circulation of these articles was by no means restricted to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for in 1840 the marriage fee in Iowa was three goatskins or four bushels of sweet potatoes.
The earliest coins to be struck for the colonies in the Americas were those struck in the early seventeenth century for Somers Islands or the Bermudas as they are now called. These coins, made of brass and then silvered, are now extremely rare. They were known as `hog money', the name supposedly being invented after Sir George Somers had discovered the islands to be overrun with these animals when he was shipwrecked there whilst on his way to Virginia in 1609. The first coins to be struck on the mainland were those for the New England settlements of Massachusetts. In 1652, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered one John Hull to strike a quantity of silver shillings, sixpences and threepences. The design was crude; the letters NE in script capitals in a small rectangle are on one side and the value in Roman numerals is in a similar stamp on the other. The pure simplicity of the design invited counterfeiting and the design was later radically altered to a more complicated one. The obverse of the coins bears the words MASATHVETS IN. (or variants) around either a willow, oak or pine tree within a beaded circle and the reverse NEW ENGLAND ANO DOM (or variants) around the date and value. In the latter half of the eighteenth century some copper cents and half cents were issued with an Indian standing holding a bow and arrow on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. These were dated 1787 or 1788 and in the following year the mint was finally closed as being unprofitable.
In 1632 a charter was granted to Cecil, second Lord Baltimore, making him `Lord Proprietor of Maryland' and although this charter did not specifically state that he was given coining rights, in 1658 he issued a small quantity of silver shillings, sixpences and groats together with a few pattern denarii or pennies in copper. All of these denominations are rare, there being only three examples known of the penny.
The silver coins have the arms of the Baltimore family on the reverse whilst the penny has a ducal coronet with two pennants flying. All of the coins depict the bust of Lord Baltimore on the obverse together with the legend 'CF- CILIVS:DNS:TERRf_-MARLE; & CT'. The dies for these coins were cut in London and a number of specimens struck and shipped out to the colony where they were readily accepted.
A rather strange series of coins next claims our attention; these are the St Patrick's or Mark Newby coins attributed to New Jersey. In November 1681, together with other immigrants from Dublin, Mark Newby and his family arrived in New Jersey and brought with them a quantity of these copper coins. Because of the figure of St Patrick on the obverse of these pieces they are usually known as St Patrick's halfpence. Two different sizes and designs of these coins are known; the larger, which is generally accepted as being a halfpenny, depicts St Patrick blessing a number of people together with the legend ECCE GREX (Behold the flock). The smaller piece, a farthing, again depicts St Patrick, this time casting out a large number of reptiles and animals; the legend is QVIESCAT PLEBS (May the people be quiet). Both of these denominations have the same reverse, that of a king kneeling holding an Irish harp below a crown and the legend FLOREAT REX (May the King prosper). It is thought that these coins were struck in Dublin in 1678 but this is by no means certain. What is certain, however, is that Newby must have brought a very large quantity with him for in an Act dated 8 May, 1682, they were made current in New Jersey `and after the said eighteenth instant, pass for half-pence current of the province ... provided also that no Person or Persons be hereby obliged to take more than five shillings in one payment'.
The shortage of coins in the colonies had long been a matter of some inconvenience to the settlers, and the English government was never very helpful regarding the striking of coins to alleviate these difficulties. In the early eighteenth century, therefore, it became necessary to import large quantities of copper coins from England and Ireland. In July 1722 William Wood obtained a patent from George I whereby he was given the right to strike 300 tons of copper coins for use in the American colonies. The arrangement was that the first 200 tons were to be struck within the first four years and not more than ten tons a year for the next ten years. The first coins were undated but subsequent issues were dated 1722 and 1723. There were three denominations, twopences, pennies and halfpennies. One type has an obverse with the head of George I facing right with his titles and a full blown rose on the reverse surrounded by the legend RosA AMERICANA 1722 uTILE DuLCI (American Rose, the useful with the pleasant). The coins were made of Bath metal, a mixture of silver, brass and tutanaigne and are believed to have been struck in London and Bristol; later some dies were allegedly taken to New York.
At this period Ireland was also experiencing a shortage of copper coins and Wood struck a series of coins for use in that country. They proved to be unpopular, however, and were subsequently shipped out to the colonies. This issue, known as Wood's coinage, is of two types; the first type, dated 1722 with Hibernia seated facing left holding a harp in front of her, consisted both of halfpennies and farthings, the latter being extremely rare. Later in the same year the reverse was changed in that Hibernia now leans on the harp which is placed behind her. This second issue consisted of halfpennies and farthings; the halfpennies being struck in 1722, 1723 and 1724, the farthings only in the last two years.
Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the state of New Hampshire considered the possibility of a copper coinage and on 13 March, 1776, the House of Representatives authorized William Moulton to strike a limited quantity of patterns for their consideration. The designs were never approved, however, and only very few of the coins ever found their way into circulation. There are three types known to exist, all of them being exceedingly rare and varying in design from a tree on the obverse to a harp on the reverse of one and the letters `wM' on the reverse of the other.
Under the Articles of Confederation of the States adopted on 9 July, 1778, Congress was allowed to regulate the alloy and values of the coins struck by each state, who retained the right to strike their own coins. Subsequently, states such as Vermont, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey considered striking coins and in fact large numbers of copper coins of varying types were authorized for circulation.
Apart from coins which were actually intended for circulation, various other tokens and medals which relate to this period of American history are generally classed as having been passed as currency. Not the least of these is the series of pieces that bear the portrait of George Washington on the obverse. Many varieties of these exist and they vary in date between 1783 and 1795.
In 1776 dollar-sized coins were produced, probably in New York. These are rather strange coins in appearance with a sundial as the central design on the obverse and below it the inscription MIND YOUR BUSINESS. Round this is the legend CONTINENTAL CURRENCY 1776. The reverse is devoted to a series of linked circles, each bearing the name of a state and in the centre 1S the motto AMERICAN CONGRESS WE ARE ONE. These pieces were struck in three different metals, silver, brass and pewter. Those struck in pewter may be classed as scarce or rare, the silver and brass examples as extremely rare.
A series of coins that may be regarded as patterns for a coinage of the United States are the so-called `Nova Constellatio' patterns struck in silver. They were designed by Gouverneur Morris in 1783 and are excessively rare. There are three denominations, the Mark, Quint and Cent. Based on the decimal system, the Mark was equal to 1,000 units, the Quint 500 and the cent 100, the unit (mill) being a quarter grain of silver. The obverse has the central design of an eye surrounded by rays and the legend NOVA CONSTELLATIO. The reverse IS LIBERTAS JUSTITIA 1783 around a wreath in which appears u.s. and the value. These patterns had been designed for Robert Morris, head of the Confederation finance department, and in 1783 and 1785 large numbers of copper cents were struck in Birmingham based on the design of the silver Nova Constellatio patterns. The 1786 Nova Constellatio copper is believed to be a contemporary counterfeit: only a few examples are known.
On 6 July 1785 Congress passed a resolution that the national currency was to be based on the decimal system, the units being dollars and cents. In 1786 Congress authorized the first issue of copper coins-the `fugio' cents of 1787. The coins were mainly struck in New York and New Haven, Connecticut and bore ... `the following device, viz., thirteen circles linked together, a small circle in the middle, with the words UNITED STATES round it, and in the centre, the words WE ARE ONE ; on the other side of the same piece the following device, viz., a dial with the hours expressed on the face of it, a meridian sun above, on one side of which is to be the word FuGIO and on the other the year in figures 1787 below the dial the words MIND YOUR BUSINESS'. The copper for this coinage was obtained by one James Jarvis from military stores and it is believed that it was mainly in the form of copper bands from around powder kegs.
On 3 March 1791 Congress passed another resolution dealing with the national currency, this time definitely authorizing a mint to be set up and the president to engage artists and purchase coining machinery. It was not until 1792, however, that the first coins were struck at the new mint set up in Philadelphia These were the half disme (half dime) and possibly also the disme (dime) struck from silver plate supplied by George Washington himself. The obverse bears the head of Liberty facing left, a portrait which is thought to be modelled on Washington's wife Martha arid the legend LIBERTY PARfENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY. The reverse bears an eagle flying left and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The issue of these coins was very limited, however, and it was not until the following year that coins were struck in any quantity and even then the issue only consisted of cents and half cents.
The half cent was the lowest value ever issued by the United States. Even in those days of low prices, a half-cent piece was considered a nuisance; its coinage declined and it was discontinued altogether in 1857. The designs used were very similar to the large cents.
The one-cent piece has been the most regularly produced U.S. coin. A one-cent piece has been struck in every year except 1815. In 1793, its first year, 112,212 pieces in three different designs were issued. Because of sales taxes today and the policy of pricing merchandise at `$1.98', etc. the demand for one-cent pieces has grown so that the annual coinage currently exceeds two billion pieces.
The first cents were struck on large copper planchets, about the size of modern quarters. It was a clumsy coin to use and expensive to produce. The large cents were discontinued along with the half cents in 1857. In the same year a new type showing an eagle in flight was introduced on a small, thick planchet. The composition of these new cents was 88 per cent copper and 12 per cent nickel, thus giving the coin a rather whitish appearance. In 1859 the type was again altered, the 'flying eagle' being dropped in favour of the Indian head design. The figure actually represents Liberty decked out in a feather head-dress as the law of 1792 had specified that `an impression emblematical of Liberty, with an inscription of the word LIBERTY, and the year of coinage' was to appear on one side of each coin. Collectors have always known these coins, however, as `Indian head cents'. The weight was reduced and the composition altered again in 1864 to 95 per cent copper and 5 per cent tin and zinc (bronze); the design remained unchanged until 1909. In this year the familiar bust of Abraham Lincoln was placed on the obverse, where it remains to this day. Public reception of the new coin was very favourable but protests arose over the use of the designer's initials (V.D.B. for Victor D. Brenner) in a prominent position on the back of the coin. The Secretary of the Treasury ordered the initials removed from subsequent coinage. This order went into effect after only 484,000 pieces had been struck at the San Francisco mint creating one of the rarities of the series. The 1909-5 VDB cent currently sells for about $150 in uncirculated condition. The reverse of the Lincoln cent was redesigned in 1959 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.
The Civil War gave birth to two unusual coins, the two-cent piece and the nickel three-cent piece. The two-cent piece is memorable as being the first U.S. coin to carry the motto 'In God We Trust'. A great deal of religious sentiment had been created by the war, resulting in this legend which now appears on all coins and is being used on new paper money as well. The two-cent piece was issued from 1864 through 1873.
The three-cent nickel piece was introduced in 1865 for the redemption of paper three-cent notes that had been pressed into use during the war. Most collectors are surprised to learn that the three-cent piece was the first American `nickel' coin. The first five-cent piece struck in nickel did not appear until the following year, 1866.
The first so-called `nickel' was authorized in 1866. Its composition is 75 per cent copper and 25 per cent nickel and except for the wartime years of 1942/45 has been struck in this composition ever since. The first nickel bore a Federal shield on the obverse. This was changed to a head of Liberty in 1883, the Buffalo-Indian design in 1913 and, finally, the Jefferson head in use today.
The first United States silver coins were struck in 1794: dollars, halves and half dimes. The early half dimes were charming little coins and weighed only some 20 grains. There was no mark or indication of value on these coins until 1829. In 1837 the type was changed to a seated figure of Liberty designed by Christian Gobrecht. This type was continued with a few minor variations until 1873.
The silver dime came into being in 1796. The early dimes were much the same as the silver half dimes. The head of Liberty designed by Barber was used from 1892 until 1916, followed by the Weinman design. This coin is commonly known as a'Mercury head' dime although, like the Indian head cent it is in fact another representation of Liberty. The wings on her cap are intended to symbolize liberty of thought. The dimes issued since 1946 carry the portrait of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt.,/P>
The shortest-lived U.S. denomination was the twenty-cent piece, regularly issued only in 1875 and 1876. (Proofs were made in 1877 and 1878.) They were too easily confused with quarters even though they had a smooth edge compared to the quarter's reeded edge.
The dollar, together with its half and quarter, are the three remaining silver denominations that were authorized as early as the eighteenth century. The dollar and half dollar first appeared in 1794 and the quarter dollar in 1796. Their designs were the same as the dime and half dime until 1916. A standing figure of Liberty was used on quarters from 1916 through 1930. The coins issued since 1932 bear the bust of George Washington. A walking figure of Liberty was used on the halves from 1916 through 1947. The design with Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty bell has been in use since 1948. No silver dollars have been struck since 1935 and with the large numbers still in the Treasury vaults it is not likely that more will be needed for many years.
The bill dated 2 April 1792 that gave birth to the coinage of the United States provided for the issue of three gold coins; the eagle of ten dollars, the half eagle and the quarter eagle. In fact it was not until three years later, in 1795, that the eagle (PLATE XI, 1) and its half first appeared and the quarter eagle was not struck until 1796. The obverse of these coins depicts a capped head of Liberty surrounded by stars with the exception of some specimens of the quarter eagle dated 1796 where no stars are shown. The reverse is devoted to an eagle in various forms with outstretched neck. Examples of these dated in the eighteenth century are exquisite coins and when in fine condition realize high prices.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the subsequent gold rush in the following year were no doubt partly responsible for the issue of two new denominations in 1849. Dies were prepared for the double eagle in 1849 but only one specimen is believed to have been struck in this year and this is now in the U.S. mint collection. However, in 1850 over 1,170,000 specimens were struck and these large coins which weigh some 516 grains or equal to over four sovereigns, were struck every year with the exception of 1917, 1918 and 1919 until 1933. In that year America went off the gold standard and since then all the necessary backing for its note issue has been in the form of bullion. The issue of gold dollars was of a much shorter duration, they were only struck until 1889.
A companion piece to the unpopular silver twenty-cents may be found in the gold three dollars that was issued in 1854; these too were never widely accepted and the issue was discontinued in 1889.
The scope of this does not permit any great consideration to be given to the many patterns, proofs, ingots and commemorative coins that have appeared during the short but eventual history of American numismatics. Exception must, however, be made with regard to the interesting series of commemorative half dollars. This series comprising some fortyeight types has, over the years, depicted some of the events in the history of the formation of the United States and a collection of these coins presents American history in a most instructive and interesting manner. Generally speaking, these coins were struck at the Philadelphia mint (other branch mints were used occasionally, however) and were sold at a premium by the commission who organized the commemorative events. The two specimens illustrated on PLATE xI have been selected as being typical of the series as a whole and because of their interest to readers of this book on both sides of the Atlantic. No. 4 was struck in 1920 with the authority of Congress to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1620. No. 5 commemorates the 350th anniversary of the colonization of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587, as well as the birth of Virginia Dare, the first white child to be born on the North American continent. The coin was struck for the celebrations in Old Fort Raleigh in 1937.