A Tour Through A Guide Book of United States Coins, Part Five

Welcome to my latest commentary on the narrative found in A Guide Book of United States Coins, 68th edition, dated 2015. You can follow by looking at the pages as or after you read this.

Today the Guide Book of United States Coins is the one-volume standard reference library for most collectors. To be sure it doesn’t including everything — far from it. However, it gives the best basic outline of American coinage to be found in print anywhere, has been examined and re-examined for accuracy (and changes are continually made with each edition), is inexpensive (just $16.95 list for the hardbound edition), requires no batteries, is random access (by opening desired pages) and has excellent graphics.

That said, I continue my commentary beginning with page 11. Illustrated is a Spanish milled dollar, a silver coin called a dollar at the time, technically eight reales, a real being a “bit” or 12-1/2 cents. The term “two bits” for a quarter survives in American language today. Such eight reales coins are also called “pieces of eight.”

The Coinage Act of April 2, 1792, specified federal coins of denominations from the half cent to the $10 gold eagle. Legislation of the era, and later, also made many world coins legal tender. It took a long time before there were enough federal coins in circulation to be meaningful. In the interim, silver and gold coins of Spanish-American countries in particular, but also France, German States, Great Britain and elsewhere served well in the channels of commerce. Papers in larger cities often had a column called “Prices Current,” giving the exchange values. Spanish-American gold coins were denominated in escudos, one escudo being worth $2. An eight escudo piece or doubloon was valued at about $16. However, even within this denomination, doubloons from one Spanish-American country might have slightly higher or lower gold content than coins from another, so “Prices Current” often listed countries separately.

It may come as a surprise to learn that many such foreign coins remained legal tender until the Act of February 21, 1857, to be implemented two years later, abolished this privilege. An extra six months was added to the time, meaning that it was not until summer 1859 that only federal coins could be used in transactions.

On page 11 of the Guide Book, “Money of the Early Americans” tells of items other than coins that were used in commerce in colonial days. Grain, a term that also included corn, was legal tender in certain of the colonies, as were furs, dried fish, dried tobacco and even cows! Wampum, used by Indians (Native Americans), was typically made from shells and put on a string. Later, wampum was made in factories. These had trade or exchange value.

The use of goods and commodities mostly faded after the early 18th century, but it did linger on in the barter system. I have a ledger from Henry Rust’s store in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, filled out in the 1830s and 1840s. Rust would “sell” merchandise — imported goods, clothes, shoes, books, you name it. In exchange he would accept labor valued at about 50¢ per day, or $1 per day if a man used a horse or ox. Eggs were accepted as payment at a certain value, as were corn, poultry and other items. Cash did not change hands.

Although A Guide Book of United States Coins deals with coins, per the title, paper money was an important part of commerce in the early days as it remains now. This is a separate subject worth investigating. The Whitman Publishing LLC website offers a number of worthwhile titles in this specialty.

See you next week!


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