Spain’s imprint on US coins

1794 4 reales silver coin. (Images courtesy of Numismatic Guaranty Company.)

Anyone who has looked a bit into the history of the United States at the very time we declared our independence knows that one thing that just wasn’t in place for the 13 colonies and then the states was any form of monetary system. Our Congress didn’t even have time to authorize a mint until the 1790s, more than 15 years after our famous declaration of independence. Yet business is business, time is money, a penny saved is a penny earned and a host of other such sayings mean that somehow trade has always took place during all these “moneyless” years. So what did the trick before there were coins that said “United States of America”? The answer is the one that takes us out of the mainstream, so to speak: coins from Spain.

In the United States today, one can be forgiven for thinking that our history is almost exclusively aligned with that of Britain. After all, we speak English and we have a bicameral system consisting of a House and a Senate, much like the British House of Commons and House of Lords. But Britain was not the only European power to settle on this side of the Atlantic. France was in the arena as thick as possible. So was Portugal. The Netherlands tried it. Even Sweden had a colony for several years, where today’s Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. But one of the big players in the colonization of the Western Hemisphere was Spain. From as far south as Patagonia to incursions into the Mississippi, Spain sent waves of conquistadores, hidalgos and settlers to the new lands across what Columbus and his men called “the sea oceanic”. Part of what brought them was the desire to conquer and be landowners; part was the thirst for gold and silver. Much of what they sent home was gold and silver coinage.

Many collectors know that the Spaniards set up their Casa de Moneda – the Mint – in what is now Mexico City in 1535. By 1776 this facility, and others further south, had become major players in the production of silver coins. for Spain, for the Spanish Empire in the Americas, and for transpacific trade with the Empire of China. The big silver coins of this system were the 8 reales coins, often called today the “Spanish dollar” or the “pillar dollar”. They had a well-established weight and were accepted in large parts of the world, including the 13 British colonies.

Collecting Spanish silverware can be a fun way to spruce up and add to any collection of antique and classic United States silverware. We could start by looking at which Spanish kings were on the throne from 1776 to the time of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s, and from there put together what we might call a set of portraits. The pillars and coat of arms on the reverse of these coins have rarely changed much. But perhaps obviously, each king had his royal caboche on the obverse of these coins. Some of these coins can be expensive, but many are still undervalued and therefore not too expensive.

If a look at the 8 reales coins reveals prices we don’t like, there’s always the option to move to lower denominations. Starting from top to bottom, beyond the 8-reale coins are the 4-, 2-, 1-, and tiny 1/2-reale silver coins. These also all feature the king’s likeness on the obverse and the royal coat of arms on the reverse – and may attest to the skill of the Casa de Moneda engravers of the time. Many of them exist today, and based on the wear and tear of some of them, they must have been in circulation for decades.

Curiously, another possibility that exists, extremely rare with any type of coin except 8 reales, is that of a cut silver coin. What we mean is that there are 8 pieces of reales that have been cut into two pieces, or four or even eight. These “bits” were a way to make small change from the big coins. Doing this may seem strange to us today, but if we think about it, at the time these coins were minted, virtually every town, even the smallest ones, had a blacksmith shop. Smith’s shops had the tools to cut a piece of metal, and so the coins could be cut into small pie-shaped wedges for use as small change. An eighth was a little, in theory worth 12-1/2 cents. Such cut pieces can still be found today.

Spanish colonial coins, as well as those from a newly independent Mexico, circulated in the growing United States for decades, until Congress passed legislation specifically ending the practice. The 1857 Act which was approved on February 21 stated that these coins were to be delivered to the Treasury, or “…its various offices, and to the various Post Offices and Land Offices…” and later in the bill indicated that these coins “…will be re-minted at the Mint”.

Thus, the law of 1857 ended the official use of Spanish silver in the United States and marked the end of a chapter in our monetary history, but opened another. Over time, the use of all foreign coins in everyday commerce ceased, but a memory or two of them still lingers today. When we hear a team of kids shouting the old cheer, “Two bits, four bits, six bits, one dollar, all for our team, get up and shout!” these bits are a connection to this very old and well-established system. Collecting Spanish silver alongside our classic American silver might seem a bit out of the ordinary, but can be a fun and modern connection to a fascinating piece of history.

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