Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Remember When . . . The Coins Were Divided?

(I cheated today and took part of a post I put up at Colonial Quills for this. ;-)  Feel free to stop by the original post too!)

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the British counterfeiting scheme during the Revolution.  Well, after that the dollar was pretty much destroyed. After the war, most people traded in silver coin, using the Spanish silver dollars, which equaled eight reales. And when they needed a smaller coin, they pieced them into half, quarters, etc.

Which meant that folks got so good at dividing these silver circles that they soon had eighths and tenths. But, um, have you ever tried to tell the difference between an eighth of a small circle and a tenth? Yeah. The people of the new United States weren't all that fond of it either. 

This was the point when independent gold and silver smiths became authorized to create their own money with the approval of the government. You could bring in your pieced silver, hand it over to the smith, and get in return a nice, easy-to-use shilling. Naturally, the smiths got the good end of this deal by coating a less-expensive metal in the silver and so keeping the difference.

One of the most prominent smiths of post-Revolution America was John Chalmers of Annapolis. The Chalmers Shilling was brilliant, in part because of its marketing potential. The front of the coin had "I. Chalmers Annapolis" emblazoned around it, which meant that everyone using the coin knew the name of this one smith.

What I find really interesting is the back of the coin. In case you can't make it out, those are two birds fighting over a worm, with a snake in the background waiting to strike them.

Keep in mind that at the time there was a huge debate about how big or small the federal government should be, whether authority should remain mostly with the states or be given to the centralized government. Well, Chalmers made his politics known with this image. The birds represent the states, and the image is a cautionary tale--let not the states bicker among themselves. If they do, the federal government (the snake) will be ready to swallow them whole.

And there you have a second installment of the history of early American currency. That'll be two shillings, please. ;-)