Our Country in Coins
There was a shortage of coins in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Colonists had to depend on non-coin types of money to conduct business. A number of colonies used wampum, tobacco, or other commodity money.
Why wasn't there enough currency? One reason is that money was sent back to England to buy things that weren't available in America. The goods were shipped to the colonies, but the money stayed in England. Another reason is that the British government did not want to send its coins to the colonies. It was a form of control.
Since ships came to the Americas from countries such as Portugal and France, coins other than English ones made their way into the economy. Due to trade with the Spanish West Indies, eight-reales silver coins became popular. These Spanish milled dollars were also known as “pieces of eight” because they could be cut into eight parts, or “bits.” Each bit was worth twelve and a half cents.
Some of the Spanish dollars were minted in Mexico City from the rich supply of Mexican silver. The dollars were readily available to the colonists and were accepted for financial transactions. Another Spanish coin, the gold doubloon, was equal in value to sixteen of the silver dollar coins.
But still, there was not enough coinage to go around, and the colonies began to mint coins in smaller denominations to meet the demand for coins. In 1652, John Hull of the Massachusetts Bay Colony started a mint that produced very simple coins. The coins were stamped with NE for New England on one side and the denomination on the other. The simplicity of the coin led to trouble — it was easy to counterfeit and easy to clip.
From 1653 to 1674, Hull's mint produced redesigned coins that had a willow, oak, or pine tree on the obverse (front of the coin). On the reverse (back of the coin), the coins had the date and III, VI, or XII (the Roman numerals for 3 = threepence, 6 = sixpence, and 12 = shilling). Hull's coins are usually referred to as New England pine tree coins.
Other colonies began to mint coins too. There were different coins in each of the colonies. The values placed on the coins in each region also differed and often led to confusion. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tells of going to a bakery in Philadelphia after his move from Boston:
Then I asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I made him give me three-penny worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surpriz'd at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walk'd off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other.
Imagine how confusing things got by the end of the eighteenth century when the British had been defeated and each of the states was minting its own coins! Take, for example, Connecticut. During the years from 1785 to 1788, more than 300 different copper coins were made! Why so many? The state authorized private citizens to mint the coins for the state. Each mint developed its own design!
Individual states did not always find it easy to mint their own coins. In 1787 and 1788, when the state of Massachusetts began to make copper cents and half cents, it found that it cost two cents to make each cent, and one cent to make a half cent! Massachusetts only operated its mint for a short time.
PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
It now costs 1.4 cents to make each penny and there is a movement to do away with the penny (