The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 28, July 12, 2015, Article 14


Jim Laughlin published a great article in the July 2015 issue of The E-Gobrecht, the electronic journal of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club. Here's an excerpt. -Editor

The following newspaper article was written by unknown author living in 1898, reminiscing about the changes he had seen growing up 50 years earlier in Ohio, Illinois, and later New York. What is rather unique, the author chose to write about coins in circulation and the terms associated with them. Here is a firsthand account reaffirming that our Liberty Seated coinage in the 1840s and 1850s circulated hand in hand with a “good deal of foreign coins.”

March 20, 1898, Los Angeles Herald

The Coins of Former Days: Some of the terms Used in This Country to Designate Them

In Ohio, in 1844 and previously, there was a good deal of foreign coin in circulation, mostly Spanish, with some of the old state coinage of different states occasionally making its appearance. One of the most plentiful of these foreign coins was a piece which passed cur-rent for 6 ¼ cents. In Ohio this was known as a fip-penny bit, a contraction, probably, of fivepenny bit. The half dimes of American coinage were also becoming frequent at that time, and as a distinction between the half dime and the fippenny bit, the former was contracted to the word “fip.” The dime went under its lawful name, while the old Spanish double of the fip-penny bit was known as the “bit”, and the Spanish and Mexican quarter dollars were nearly always referred to as “two bits.” The latter term, I think, still obtains in reference to quarter dollar American pieces in some sections. There was also a New York state “two bit” coin, as well as a “bit” of the same coinage, which was sometimes called the “York shilling.” The New Eng-land shilling’s value was 16 2/3 cents. The old fashioned big copper cent of American coinage was plentiful, while occasionally an English halfpenny of copper was found floating around, generally passing on the same basis as the American copper cent. Queen Victoria’s head was then shown on the English halfpennies.

Later, when, as a boy, I removed with my mother to Illinois, I met my first stumbling block in money names. There the fippeny bit was the picayune, while the fip had its proper name of a half dime or 5 cents. But the larger coins retained the old names, as did the copper cents. As near as I can learn, the term picayune originated with the French, who had settled St. Louis and had settlements at points all the way from New Orleans to St. Louis and the further northwest, and their names for money predominated in that region.

Still later, when I had strayed away to New York State, I again encountered new names for money. There eve-rything was based on the “shilling”, which represented 12 ½ cents. A quarter of a dollar was always “two shil-lings”, and all sums under $100 dollars were calculated on the same basis. When I asked the price of board, I was told it ranged from 16 to 30 shillings a week. The price of a suit of clothes was generally stated in shil-lings. That was all right for the natives, but I confess I had frequently to brush up my arithmetic to get at what 33 shillings, 22 shillings, 17 shillings or some other high number amounted to. It was all clear enough when it was 2, 4 or 6 shillings, but when it got above a dollar it required some “ciphering” on the part of a stranger to get correct results.

The three cent piece, originally coined in silver, came into general circulation in the north about 1850, and was later made in nickel, being coined in that metal at about the same time as the present nickel five cent piece.

Some time before the Civil War the old fashioned cop-per cent was replaced at the mint with the present small copper cents and two cent pieces. Later the first nickels were made, but almost went out of circulation during the war, and were succeeded by the fractional currency of that day, issued in 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent bills. These were never very popular with the masses, and were looked upon by the government as a temporary expedient. The most popular designation for them was “shinplasters,” though in Memphis and other parts of the country they were referred to as “chicken feed.”

During the war there were many other substitutes for money, mostly in the form of cardboard promises to pay everything, from a drink of whiskey or a ride on the cars to a suit of clothes, from a quart of milk or a pound of beefsteak to a week’s salary. They have dropped out of use in most sections, and in their place Uncle Sam’s coppers, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and “dollars of the daddies” now reign supreme-Galveston News.

I love first-person accounts such as this. There are few better ways to learn history than to hear about it directly from someone who was there at the time. Jim's article goes on to explain the history of the terms in more detail. -Editor

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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