History in Your Hands


Handful of coins in palm hands isolated on white

One of the great things about collecting and enjoying rare coins and currency is that each item is like a miniature work of art that you can hold in your hands. More importantly, each has a specific story to relate. Some were minted during turbulent historical times such as during the Civil War, while others were printed to commemorate important events, such as the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. They are reminders of our nation’s history.

While Morgan Silver Dollars, Large Cents, and Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle Gold coins are all enjoyable, popular, and important series of coins, there is a segment of numismatics that is under-appreciated and, unquestionably, the most historically significant of all!

Early Colonial Coins and Currency were issued before our nation began. These relics bear testament to the courage of our nation’s Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin saw the need for the colonies to stop using British Coppers and Spanish Milled Dollars, if we were ever to become a truly independent nation. Under George Washington’s Administration, a Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was named and a United States Mint was created in Philadelphia. The need for coins and currency was real and it was met, first by each of the 13 Original Colonies, and then by the Continental Congress.

Before the American Revolution, the American colonies relied upon foreign coins in order to transact business in America. This proved unreliable at best, as there were no standard denominations, and the supply of these coins was inadequate. A number of the colonies decided to strike their own coins, while still others contracted with private individuals and companies to mint coins for them. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont were prolific in issuing their own coinage. In fact New Jersey actually has hundreds of varieties of their copper coins. As time progressed, the desire to offer a more standardized coinage that would be accepted by all of the colonies gained momentum. To answer that need, the Nova Constellatio pieces and Fugio Cents (designed by Benjamin Franklin) were produced as experiments to offer a Federal coinage. Additionally, Hibernia coins were minted by different private minters and a series of pieces used to honor former General and then President George Washington was struck. Colonial Coins are a truly interesting collectible that our Founding Fathers may have held in their hands.

There are two major types of Colonial CurrencyContinental Currency, authorized and issued by the Continental Congress but printed by private printers, and Colonial Currency, issued by each of the Colonies. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued their own currency in order to pay the army and to pay all of their foreign and domestic war debts. The Colonies issued paper currency to pay their debts to the Federal Government and to serve as a medium of exchange within their borders. While the public strongly preferred Silver and Gold coins to transact their business, their reluctant acceptance of this paper money and the fact that these notes were inadequately backed by hard currency, gave rise to the expression “Not worth a Continental.” There is a special feeling about holding a note that was issued during our War for Independence or a coin that was struck during President George Washington’s administration and thinking about who also may have held that coin or note.

This is a great opportunity to hold “History in Your Hands!”

2 thoughts on “History in Your Hands

  1. This is exactly what got me into (casual) numismatics as a kid. I never had anything as old as a Colonial-era coin; I was fortunate enough to inherit a ratty, old 1814 one cent piece. But every coin has an untold story, from when it first emerged, shiny and new, from the mint of its country of origin, through the hands of many, in myriad transactions, to whatever transpired to “retire” it and bring it into my possession. It was difficult for a young boy with little understanding of inflation to imagine how much more an old coin might have bought than a contemporary coin of the same denomination, but I had heard stories of how much more a nickel, say, had been worth in my father’s day.

    Metal detectorists (some of whom I follow on YouTube) often dig up these bits of history, whose final story might well have involved the tears of a child who had lost a small fortune in lunch money on the schoolyard half a century or more ago, or the passing of a hoarder who hadn’t left any clues to the location or even existence of his stash of coins in a buried Mason jar. Small, personal dramas whose details we can only imagine, yet such human stories make collecting coins compelling, and connect us with an otherwise obscure past. =^[.]^=

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