Money had a rich history in America prior to the advent of the United States’ national coinage in 1793. When coins tumbled off the presses from the first U.S. Mint the country was much more accustomed to coins from other countries. People were content to use currency, both old and new, whose value was based more on the metal content than on the issuer’s reliability. Foreign money in America during the colonial period had become so embedded that it continued to be accepted as legal tender until discontinued by law in 1857. Coins of this era are so fundamental to American numismatics that every collection should include at least a sampling.
Many of the foreign coins from England, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands have names, sizes, and expressions whose usage has continued to the present day. Not only did the popular Spanish-American silver 8 reales, Pillar dollar, or piece of eight become a model for the American silver dollar, but its fractional parts morphed into the half-dollar and quarter-dollar coins that are now considered decimal fractions of the dollar. The American quarter dollar, which was similar in size and value to the Spanish 2-real coin, took on the nickname two bits—a moniker that remains today. It was not until 1997 that stock-market prices ceased being quoted in the Spanish-real system of eighths of a dollar. Similarly, the American one-cent coin has never totally lost its association with the English penny, and continues to be called that by anyone indifferent to numismatic accuracy.
The use of foreign coins was so prevalent in colonial times that the dollar sign and the very term dollar, as we know them today, did not come into general use until 1767. The paper dollars printed by Maryland and issued that year were the first to include the term to indicate the Spanish-American piece of eight, which was a radical departure from denominations in terms of English pounds, shillings, and pence. Distinguishing between the relative values of the multitude of different foreign currencies was not a simple task. The English, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Dutch, and other currencies all had to be calculated in terms that related to their values in various colonies and states. To facilitate conversions, books and tables showed comparison prices for each currency. In mid-1750, for instance, the Spanish dollar was quoted as being worth eight shillings in New York, but sixpence less in New Jersey, and only four shillings, eightpence in Georgia.
Coins, tokens, paper money, and promissory notes were not the only media of exchange used during the early formation of the country. Many day-to-day transactions were carried on by barter and credit. Mixed into this financial morass were local trade items such as native wampum, hides, household goods, and tools.
Beyond these pre-federal considerations are the many kinds of private and state issues of coins and tokens that permeate the colonial period from 1616 to 1776, and that are the true essence of collectible money of that era. These are items that catch the attention and imagination of everyone interested in the history and development of early America. Yet, despite their enormous historical importance, forming a basic collection of such items is not nearly as daunting as one might expect.
The coins and tokens described in this book are fundamentally a major-type listing of the metallic money used throughout the pre-federal period. Many collectors use this as a guide to forming a comprehensive set of these pieces. It is not encyclopedic in its scope. Beyond the basic types are numerous sub-varieties of some of the issues, and a wide range of European coins. Collectors attempt to accumulate as many of those as time and finances will permit. Some aim for the finest possible condition, while others find great enjoyment in pieces that saw actual circulation and use during the formative days of the country. There are no rules about how or what to collect other than to enjoy owning a genuine piece of early American history.