What did colonists and early Americans use as coins

I understand that they have used Spanish and spanish colonial coins for commerce. But I don’t know how it worked or how widespread it was. In everyday existence were they common? There are a couple hundred years for this to be an issue.

Ben Franklin printed currency at some point. But what kind of coins and change did he, and other founding fathers use in their everyday life, through to the late 18th century?

The colonials used a motley bunch of coins and tokens from a number of sources. As noted, Spanish coins were commonly used just about everywhere. But remember, American colonials were British subjects, and therefore British currency and coins were in circulation everywhere.

Pretty much off topic, but I recently read a book about the development of large factories, beginning around 1720 in England. One of the difficulties faced was the lack of cash for payroll, contributing to payment in scrip.

I suspect a lot of transactions within a community were “on account,” via IOUs and personal notes.

They had some local coinage and paper money in addition to foreign coins.

Early use of Spanish coinage was common enough to leave its mark in spoken language - both “Pieces of Eight” (the classic pirate parrot cry) and “Two bits” (meaning a quarter) relate to the Spanish dollar which equaled in value to 8 reales.

They left a deeper mark than that. The proximate source of the word “dollar” was from Spanish (the ultimate source was from German).

The same situation applied in the early years of the New South Wales colony. While British currency was the standard, at least when stating prices there was never enough to go around, but neither was there a fine-grained complex local economy to demand everyone have a pocket full of change.

There was a lot of reliance on Spanish currency, which acted as a sort of international standard and had a reliable value as bulion. Gov Macquarie took Spanish dollars and punched a small disk out of the centre, created a donut coin worth 5 shillings and a smaller one worth 15 pence to produce a local coinage. Being abundant and having intrinsic value, rum was also used as a default medium of exchange in the early colony, but I’m sure most credit transactions moved around as mental IOUs, ledgers and promissory notes.

I just wonder what the contents of Ben Franklins pockets were for money.

I mean on an everyday level what do we know about the length of use of a coin in the new world. Would you be using coins that were over a hundred years old, in 1760? Would Gold be found ordinarily or was it stowed? Were the triangular and other shaped pieces of 8 common in all colonies as pocket change?

If I wanted to buy a coin that had the best chance to have been used by a founding father, what do you think it would be?

(Maybe coins were rarer and business was done by IOUs.)
I wonder about the colonial issues like brazil, chile, peru, if they would be just aslikely to be found in New England or Philadelphia, say.

Where do you find this as the source for dollar, please? Every source I find which refers to the real de a ocho as a “dollar” or “dólar” español is either in English, translated from English, or indicates that the expression was used in English-speaking countries.

The word ‘dollar’ doesn’t come from Spanish. Early American colonists were familiar with the German thaler or dollar and they considered the real de a ocho to be a ‘Spanish dollar’ because it was a coin with similar weight of silver.

See the online etymology dictionary

Summary: TL;DR

OP is especially interested in small change, but most of the evidence deals with larger payments. The question of “small change” is a mystery to me even in England. In the 1300’s low-quality ale sold in Britain for less than a penny per gallon, but the silver penny was the smallest coin minted. I realize that pennies were cut into halves, thirds and quarters but even so: Was buying a mere pint of ale simply not an option? The best Gascon wine was only 4 pennies per gallon in 1331 London. Two dozen eggs were a penny, a pound of cheese was less than a penny.

I was interested enough in this question to to do some Googling, though I’m afraid my summary will just add to the confusion. I’ll post it anyway, because I might want to refer to it — if I left it on my hard disk it would get lost in the muddle!

A wide variety of money was in use in the early colonies:

(1) Wampum beads (important to the Iroquois people, though they never used their wampum strings as money):

(2) Commodities, e.g. animal pelts, iron nails, liquor:

Shortage of gold and silver coinage was exacerbated by the trade deficit: precious metals were flowing to Britain to pay for the import needs of the colonies.

(3) British copper coins:

(4) Foreign silver coins:

But …

(5) For 30 years beginning in 1652, Massachusetts minted its own silver coins:

The British government shut down that mint; soon thereafter Massachusetts was issuing paper money.
During the 1700’s copper coins were minted in Connecticut and elsewhere.

(6) Paper money issued by colonial governments. Since the (pdf) Bills of Credit issued by colonial governments like South Carolina’s were not generally redeemable into specie, there was often severe inflation and related politics. The use of this paper money in general commerce was only intermittent.

For a lot of those small-price, repeated items, would a tab have been kept? I know it was done so by many food vendors in Spain as late as the 1970s; the tab would be paid between once a month (salaried people) and when a harvest came in (farmers).

…Saint Peter don’t you call me 'cos I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store…
makes me think of that kind of practice, rather than of something like company scrip.

I’m not sure why you think the penny was the smallest coin minted in the 14th century. Farthings were very common.

According to Wikipedia, in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) 4 million farthings were minted, and more were minted in successive reigns.

Thanks for the correction. My flawed memory must have been about the 12th century when, I guess, the penny was the smallest minted coin. But even with farthings one wonders how very small transactions took place. If eggs were six to the farthing, did buyers always buy multiples of six?

Part of it is, as Nava said, that anyone with a fixed address and a reputation would buy on account. Part of it is that eggs were much smaller than modern eggs. :slight_smile:

But mainly it’s that we shouldn’t think in modern terms of individuals buying and cooking food for themselves. That would have been rare.

  • Either you lived in a family household with cooking facilities, in which case food purchases would be for all the occupants and their servants and dependents. (A person visiting a town would either stay with friends or relatives, or rent a room with a family with meals included.)
  • Or you lived in a garret or rented room without cooking facilities, in which case you could buy bread and cheese and beer and keep it in your room, or eat at an inn or tavern or cookshop.

This site lists colonial coins that are within reach.

Didn’t the banks issue scrip? Some of it became worthless when the bank failed. It was such an economic climate that led the US govt, when it was formed, to declare any money not produced by the govt to be illegal.

This is extremely poor proof, but I recall an historical novel of the era where some sucker had a pocket full of bank scrip, and a con artist convinced him that it was worthless, since he had a “bluebook”-type document that said the bank had failed. The con artist helpfully offered to buy them for 10% of the face value, and after the transaction was completed, but too late, the sucker found out the news was fake, and the money was quite valuable.

Great research! Thanks.

Looking out over the next 100 years or so, I imagine gold would have been rare in daily transactions. But I do wonder how many spanish gold doubloons (2 escudos and more) were around, or were they just held as wealth, and by what classes of people. Many coins just get hoarded.

I still wonder what the life span of a circulating coin was through the time period too. I don’t know if we are very sure about how many times a man would pay for something in an average day. Could Franklin have used or saved coins from the 16th century for instance?

Thanks. I’ve been looking at these things and wondering how long they were around in circulation, and the geographic migration of a coins life.

Private banks continued to issue their own banknotes well into the 20th century, although subject to federal regulation from 1863 onwards.

See this wiki article, under “Issue of banknotes”: