Last week, I participated in Colonial Day at my son’s school. I doubt it will surprise you to learn that I presented a segment on colonial silver. As I was musing on silver in colonial times, and then more specifically on the term coin silver, it came to me that in all the time I’ve seen coin silver in museums and handled it in real life, I’d never really given much thought to the actual coins of which it is made. And it is, after all, called coin silver for a very literal reason.
Just in case you did not know this before, virtually all the silver produced in colonial America is coin silver. On the face of it, the reason is quite simple. To the undoubted dismay of the colonists who were hoping for easy riches, there was no source of silver in the colonies. In the territories of Central and South America claimed by the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, there were sources of silver (and gold). But in the thirteen colonies of North America there were none. So, then, how do you make silver objects when there is no easily available source of silver? The answer is silver coins.
Silver Coins in Colonial America
Instead of droning on about coin silver and silver coins in the abstract, it occurred to me that actually showing the kids some genuine coins of the era might be interesting. This notion sent me down a fascinating little research rabbit hole to see what coins were in circulation back then.
Hard currency, specifically coins, in Colonial America bears little resemblance to the orderly system we know today. Coins came from many sources. The notion of a single accepted currency — today’s US dollars and cents — did not apply back then. English coins were in circulation, but so were Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French ones. Eventually, individual colonies began to issue their own currencies. So a mish-mash of coins were all acceptable as payment for goods and services.
Even with many types of coins in circulation, coinage was still not plentiful. Money was literally in short supply and defining the value of money in Colonial times was a tricky thing. Barter and trade were acceptable forms of payment.
Armed with the knowledge that a wide variety of coins would have been in use, off I trotted to a numismatist to acquire some suitable samples. Eventually I ended up with an English George II silver halfpenny minted in 1740 and a Spanish half-real from 1719 when Felipe V was on the throne.
Once I got them home and out of their protective packaging, my appreciation/amazement of colonial silver took another leap. These coins are tiny.
The value of a spoon
The acquisition of a silver spoon by a colonist represented a significant purchase. Let me put it in perspective. A nice tablespoon weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 grams. I have a number of tablespoons dating from 1720 to 1780 and they all weigh in around this mark. So regardless of how much one had to pay the silversmith for his labor and expertise, a silver spoon ‘cost’ at least 70 grams of silver coins.
Teeny, tiny coins do not weigh very much. The Georgian halfpenny tips the scale at 0.5 grams. The Spanish half-real weighs in at a whopping 1 gram. It took 140 halfpennies or 70 half-real coins to make a single spoon. And everything I’ve read has emphasized just how scarce any coinage was.
The raw materials cost of some of the large pieces by Colonial silversmiths Hull, Coney, or Dummer (to name by a few) must have been staggering. By way of comparison, a modern dime weighs 2.3 grams on my scales.
It certainly made an impression on the kids who had a chance to compare the spoon they each held to the coins as they were passed around.
It’s worth repeating that passing over coin silver because it’s not ‘real silver’ is a great shame. The actual difference in silver between coin and sterling is about 25/1000ths, barely any difference at all. What coin silver represents in American history is astonishing.
The Meyer Lemon, Prosecco, and Limoncello jam recipe from the last post about Georgian Berry Spoons is now available. Scroll down the the bottom of that post to access the recipe. Thanks to everyone who emailed me! I was flattered to see how many of you were interested.