A Brief History of United States Coins

By J. T. Stanton, NLG Prior to and after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, coins of foreign countries circulated with regularity in the United States. Some of the most common “currencies” were the French Louis, English Guineas, German Thalers, Dutch Ducats and several Spanish coins such as doubloons and especially the Spanish milled dollar, or piece of eight. The Spanish milled dollar was regularly cut into 8 parts, or “bits”, with each bit officially known as a real. Two bits equaled a quarter dollar, hence the slang “two bits” meaning a quarter dollar.

Prior to the implementation of an official Mint in the new country, many individual states produced their own coinage. In addition, many businesses produced tokens which could be used in trade in their stores. It was not uncommon for one storekeeper to accept the coinage of another storekeeper. Individuals also produced their own forms of money, and many were accepted in trade. Copper was the most often used metal for these coins as copper was generally accepted in trade.

There were other forms of “currency” regularly used in the new country, such as fur, wampum, beaver skins and beads. Fur was regularly traded as a form of money. In time, the skin of a deer was an accepted unit of measure for money. From this comes the terms we refer to today as a “buck” and the word “doe” being used for the term money. As time went on, precious metals such as gold and silver were also widely considered in trade, and coins made from the two metals were in high demand.

However, there was a lot of disagreement upon how our monetary system should operate. Many people favored a system based on the British pound. However, Thomas Jefferson favored a system based on the dollar, which was already widely accepted in the United States with the use of the Spanish milled dollar. It was also Jefferson who supported the decimal system, strongly indicating that it was easier to multiply and divide by units of 10 than any other unit. From that our official monetary system was adopted by Congress on July 6, 1785. Yet other pressing matters caused the formation of a Mint to be delayed until an act of Congress on March 3, 1791. The use of Jefferson’s idea of a monetary unit divisible in 10s makes one wonder why our standardized unit of measure is not the metric system. The metric system is much easier to work with, and makes such common sense.

The first official coin struck by the United States Mint was the half disme (5 cents) on a planchet (blank) made of silver. Stories abound of Martha Washington donating some of her own silver to produce these first coins, and it is her likeness that is portrayed on these first coins. The half disme was soon followed by a disme (10 cents). The name for this coin has since been changed to dime, which we all know today.

The first Mint was in Philadelphia. Other Mints have followed and were often located where gold and silver were found in abundance, which made transportation of the precious metals to the Mints safer, easier and more expedient. It just so happens that two of those Mints are also now geographically advantageous for the economy of the United States. The Mint in Philadelphia is our primary minting facility, with other operational minting facilities in Denver, San Francisco and West Point, N.Y. The San Francisco Mint is now primarily used for production of proof coinage for collectors, and the West Point Mint is used primarily for production of other presentation coins and cents. Cents struck in West Point do not have a mint mark so one is generally unable to determine whether a cent without a mint mark was struck in Philadelphia or in West Point. Other Mints of the past were in Charlotte, NC; Dahlonega, GA; New Orleans, LA; and Carson City, NV.

If you are interested in more history of our coinage, a price guide commonly known as “the Red Book” is a great source of information. The official title is A Guide Book of United States Coins by R. S. Yoeman, and edited by Kenneth E. Bressett. It is available at most book stores, through Amazon and Borders, and on the web at www.whitmanbooks.com.


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