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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Have you the coin for that?


The American dollar has been around for a long time. During the Revolution, Congress knew it was imperative to have our own currency and not be totally reliant on British pounds, so they had paper money struck in Philadelphia.  But those diabolic Redcoats got creative and destroyed our currency. How? Oh, it's pretty simple. Counterfeiting.

During the Revolution, the British began counterfeiting Congressional dollars pretty much as soon as Congress started printing them. The result? Well, a dollar was, shall we say, not off to a great start. In many parts of the young country prices had already risen to absurd numbers because of the boycott. In New York, they had the opposite problem--imported goods were still reasonably priced, but they couldn't get staples. The price of a pound of beef raised something like 800% in three years. And if you tried to pay with dollars? Ha!

They were, literally, using the dollars as wallpaper.

The British were so set on this plan to undermine the new American economy that they set up a counterfeiting headquarters on a ship the New York governor used as a floating state house. They'd sprung a forger from jail and put him to work. Nice, eh? The one flaw--their paper was too thick.

Until, that is, they stole several reams of paper from the press in Philadelphia. 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 eigths 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 brief history of early American currency. That'll be two shillings, please.

11 comments:

  1. Very cleaver on the shilling... and I agree with the snake analogy! :) Interesting information, thanks for posting.

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  2. Oh, love those Chalmers Shillings:) I'm so happy to see you posting this as I was researching currency this week, trying to fix a dowry price for my current heroine. I found anything goes! At least until well into the 19th-century when things really settled down and currency became much more uniform. They were even dealing in pieces of eight pirate style:) Bless you, Roseanna for such a fun, informative post!

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  3. This is so great--I also needed this for my current WIP (but who doesn't need cash? :)And having the visuals helped too; authenticity is in the details.
    I'd recently read a secular colonial author, and she'd put the blame about the money problems squarely on our government. I NEVER knew the history about British counterfeiting. A story in itself! Thanks, Roseanna--and blessings!

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  4. I learned about the counterfeiting from WASHINGTON'S SPIED by Alexander Rose, which has a ton of fun, fabulous Revolutionary-era history in general. Then as I was searching for some random tidbits to include in my LOVE FINDS YOU IN ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND, I searched "Annapolis 1783" and the Chalmers shilling popped up. Fun stuff! =)

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  5. That was very cool! I didn't know that!

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  6. What an interesting post! Very neat.

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  7. Very cool! I knew by the end of the Civil War, Confederate money was being used as wallpaper, but I didn't know the dollar ever had.

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  8. Roseanna, this is so fascinating. I had no idea about any of this so I absorbed every word. Thank you for bringing us such a cool piece of colonial history.

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  9. Great post, Roseanna! Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Great post! Interesting and valuable information. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. A challenging but fun aspect to writing 18th century fiction is supplying my characters with the financial means to purchase, travel, or trade. Given the times, the ways and means can become quite creative and unconventional.

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