Through the generosity of Joseph R. and Ruth Lasser, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation presents a collection of early American coins, medals, and paper money. Painstakingly gathered over several decades, the Lasser collection – with its many thousands of pieces – is recognized worldwide as one of the most important ever assembled. The Lasser family hopes this unique, priceless collection will not only educate the public about America’s early money, but serve the needs of scholars and researchers, too.
The money jingling in our pockets and folded in our wallets today literally descended from the coins used in colonial America. Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars didn’t just appear once we declared our independence from Great Britain. These familiar coins have their roots in the vast array of coins that made it to the shores of the New World after 1607 and from the paper notes created when there weren’t enough coins to go around.
Archaeological records reveal that the money used in trade in Williamsburg came from places like Mexico, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and England. While the first coins were struck in the colonies between 1652 and 1682, their numbers were so few that foreign coins were accepted legal tender until 1857 – 64 years after the establishment of the United States Mint!
That Lincoln penny you recently threw into a jar is the direct descendant of the regal British halfpenny, and the Washington quarters we feed into vending machines have Spanish great-grandparents – the ever-present two-reales coin also known as a “two bits” piece. As concretely as the term “dollar” is associated with the United States of America, we didn’t come up with the idea. Since its debut in the 1480s, innumerable European nations have produced “talers,” “thalers,” “daalers,” and “pieces of eight” – all of which are the large-sized silver coins leading up to our beloved silver dollar.
As Americans, we have grown accustomed to using the same coins and bills we have known all our lives, and we are quite comfortable with our money. But the average colonist heading to market in 18th-century Williamsburg would have been very familiar with a bewildering array of coinage – from places far, far away from Virginia. Let’s take a look at them.