Curator Erik Goldstein describes the antecedents of modern coinage in a new exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Museum.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Erik Goldstein, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s Curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics. We’ve talked before about your job, and today, I’m interested in a new exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum that is called, “Pounds, Pence, and Pistareens: Coins and Currency in Colonial America.” Can’t stand it – what is a pistareen?
Erik Goldstein: A pistareen is a very important coin. It’s not a very rare or a very valuable coin, but it’s important because they were shipped to the American colonies in huge quantities in the 18th century. Because of what archaeologists have found within Williamsburg, I can pretty much state with some certainty that the pistareen was the most common silver coin circulating in Revolutionary War period Virginia.
Lloyd: Let’s go to pounds and pence.
Erik: Pounds and pence are a little bit more simple. While a pistareen is a nickname for a particular coin, a pound is really money of account, and a pence is also money of account – kind of like dollars and cents, the British equivalent during the 18th century.
Lloyd: When did dollars and cents actually replace pounds, and pistareens, and pence, and all those – what we would consider now – foreign currencies?
Erik: That’s kind of a trick question. Dollars and cents were first officially struck by the United States government starting in 1793, but foreign coins were legal tender in this country up until 1857. So it was fairly common to get all sorts of pocket change for your daily transactions, probably through the Civil War, just because the government said, “That’s it, no longer are we taking foreign coins in our daily transactions.” I’m sure they continued to circulate.
Lloyd: I didn’t know that. So there wasn’t a day when everybody said, “Get rid of the pounds, and pence, and pistareens, and only use dollars and cents.” It was sort of, everything worked.
Erik: It didn’t matter, which is one of the basic ideas in this exhibit. In the 18th century, nobody cared whose picture was on a coin – whether it was round, whether it was pretty, whether it was ugly – if it was the correct amount of good silver, or good gold, or good copper, they took it. So it was really the bullion that mattered, the intrinsic value of the metal contained within the coin that dictated what it was worth – not the denomination assigned to it, or the picture of the king on the obverse, or whatever was on the reverse, for that matter.
Lloyd: Talk about being weighed down with coins and currency, you really were in those days.
Erik: If you were lucky, yeah. It’s better to have a pocket full of coins than none at all.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) In this exhibit, what is the rarest of the coins?
Erik: One of the highlights of the collection is the Virginia shilling. It’s one of only five known examples, and it’s a piece that’s particularly exciting for me, because it was number one on my want list. We acquired it almost two years ago, it will be two years in January.
The reason this coin is special is because it’s the only silver piece struck by Britain for use in a particular British colony. Virginia had their own coins made, the halfpennies, in Britain in 1773, and the next year, these few silver shillings were produced, I think, as prototypes for silver coinage that was intended to be shipped to Virginia. Obviously, the political climate was changing rapidly, for the worse, and apparently the program was scrapped. But we do have one of these shillings, and I’m very proud and happy to have it out there.
Lloyd: It’s one of five?
Erik: It’s one of five known.
Lloyd: I suppose I shouldn’t ask, but who has the other four?
Erik: The other four … one is in an institution out in St. Louis, I believe the Smithsonian may have one, I can’t think of the others. I know four of the five are now in institutional collections, and there’s one out there in private hands, which is nowhere near as nice as Colonial Williamsburg’s example.
Lloyd: So if you wanted to see the Virginia shilling-piece …
Erik: (Interrupts.) You have to come here.
Lloyd: … You’re going to have to come here. That’s really quite rare, one of five. I don’t know much about coins, I know a little bit about stamps, and the rarer they are, the more valuable they are. Do you have any idea …
Erik: (Interrupts.) That’s not necessarily so. It depends on what’s valued. To me, the coin – that you could probably duplicate with an e-bay purchase – that was found in Peyton Randolph’s backyard in an archeological context that dates to the 1780s, is far more valuable than a lot of other things that might cost a lot more money. So, the intrinsic value versus the historic value are two things that, to me, have nothing to do with each other. The coins that are being presented in this exhibit are of historical interest, straight through. We completely ignore their commercial value.
Lloyd: That’s one take on it. I suppose, for Colonial Williamsburg, that would be a sensible approach. But for collectors, I rather think the other approach – what’s worth more money?
Erik: Well, it depends on why you collect. Personally, I think a collection of the common, everyday coins that were circulating in 18th-century America is way more interesting than some of the best examples of the strangest coins you can get your hands on. Just because a coin is rare today doesn’t mean it had much value in the 18th century. We could be dealing with Edsels. Like I say, that’s why the pistareen is in the title of this exhibit. It’s not a rare coin, and it’s not even an expensive coin, but it’s an important coin to understanding the way the marketplace worked in that period. So I’ve chosen it as a flagship piece to represent money in 18th-century Virginia.
Lloyd: How are the coins displayed in your collection?
Erik: They’re displayed in glass cases. They’re mounted on cloth-covered boards. They’re held with tiny, almost invisible pins that keep them in place, and they’re brought as close to the glass as possible, so you can really get your nose up close to them, without actually being able to touch them.
Lloyd: Are they labeled, so that you know what you’re …
Erik: (Interrupts.) They’re labeled, yep.
Lloyd: … looking at.
Erik: With a number of different levels of text. There’s an introduction to a particular section, which might talk about something as general as coins struck by the Spanish from silver mined in South America, and how that was distributed. The sub-sections deal with all the different facilities that produced these Spanish colonial coins. Sometimes, it gets divided even a little bit further.
Lloyd: Let’s play pretend. I am in Colonial Williamsburg, I am a merchant, I am reasonably well to do. What currencies from what country am I likely to run into in my daily business? You’ve mentioned Spanish, I didn’t know there were Spanish coins.
Erik: Oh, loads. Most of the silver coins, in fact, the pistareen is a Spanish-made coin. They were struck largely in Madrid and Seville. You’re going to run into Virginia paper money, that was common. Virginia paper money is really only good in Virginia. You might find some merchants that might accept it in some of the outlying areas in other colonies. You’re going to find a lot of Spanish silver. That can mean silver coins struck in Spain, or it could even mean coins stuck in their colonial mints, like Mexico City, Potosi in Bolivia, or Lima, Peru. You might find some French coins, you’re certainly going to find a few English coins, especially copper coins, and occasionally a wild card is thrown in there – you’ll see some Dutch coins. We’ve even found a coin from Îles du Vent, the French Colonies in the Windward Islands. So almost anything can turn up.
Lloyd: And if it turns up, it’s money?
Erik: If it turns up, it’s money. If it’s good silver, and it’s the right quantity for what you believe it to be, then you take it.
Lloyd: OK, so it’s silver or gold, but no alloys?
Erik: They’re all alloy. Gold coins can be pure, silver coins always have a little alloy in them. Pistareens are kind of interesting, because they’re a debased silver. They’re only about .750 fineness. So they’re a little bit less than your average coin silver, which is around sterling.
Lloyd: How long did you work on the exhibit, to get it the way you wanted it?
Erik: Years, years. It’s such a big scope, and it’s a little bit challenging to take a very broad topic and represent all the different interesting aspects of it, and then make it presentable in a fashion that people would be interested in it, and present the coins themselves in a way that they can be seen. They’re all tiny. I think the largest coin in the exhibit is maybe two and a half inches across.
Lloyd: Somehow I imagined them being bigger, I don’t know why, but I just did. But they are what they are.
Erik: They are what they are. They’re tiny little gems.
Lloyd: You’ve got them at the museum. Are you going to put anything online for the people who can’t get to the museum?
Erik: Absolutely. The online coin exhibit with a very similar title isn’t as expansive in the numbers of pieces – we have hundreds and hundreds of pieces in the real exhibit – the online exhibit only covers 60 some-odd pieces, but you get the same sort of cross-section, and the same sort of stories that go along with these coins. And again, you have the rare pieces that are sort of internationally-recognized numismatic treasures, and you also have the common pieces. Again, they represent the real story of what money was like in America. In the online exhibit, you’ll be able to see big, beautiful pictures of these things, so you can, in many ways, get closer to them than you can in the flesh.
Lloyd: Because, in the flesh you are limited to whatever size they are.
Erik: To their real size, and how tightly you can press your nose against the glass.
Lloyd: I know enough about photography to know you can enlarge it if you want to. If you had to send somebody into your exhibit, what would you tell them to look at?
Erik: I would first tell them to read the introductory panels, because if you go into an exhibit like this and you just jump right into it, it might be a little confusing and overwhelming because of its scope. But the introductory panels really prep you, so you go into it with the mindset of knowing a little bit about what the economy was based on back then, the bullion system, the value of gold or silver within the coin being the most important thing to the average colonial person.
And when you have that in mind, and you kind of take it a little bit further by pushing the notion out of your mind that we didn’t have our own coins. We had to rely on coins that were being produced by foreign nations, European nations and their colonies in the new world to really float our tiny little economies happening in the marketplaces. So when you get that in your head, you can really go through it, and it really becomes a lot more clear.
Lloyd: I’ve been talking to some tradespeople in Williamsburg, and they say one of the most common questions they get is – a pair of shoes, for instance – “How much would that cost now?” And, they say it’s almost impossible. So if I ask you how much are the coins, what would their monetary value be today between a merchant and a customer, can you say?
Erik: You really can’t. A lot of the coins in the exhibit have modern descendants. There were coins in the 18th century called the dollar. The pistareen is the rough equivalent of our quarter dollar, it’s an ancestor to our quarter dollar. But they’re not worth the same. The pistareen in the 18th century had far more buying power. It’s further complicated by the notion that paper money is worth less than the actual silver or gold piece. A $20 Continental Currency note is not worth 20 silver dollars – it’s worth a heck of a lot less. And how much less that is depends on where in the Revolutionary War you are. There’s always inflation and deflation with this money, so it’s problematic there. Then you have the different exchange rates in the different colonies. A pistareen in Virginia in 1775 is worth one shilling three pence, but it’s worth a little bit more in New York City. So it’s almost impossible to do this.
Lloyd: I like when people explain, things then are not the same as things now. You can’t say that a pair of shoes cost one pound, five shillings or whatever it is, because one pound five shillings may be worth a lot more.
Erik: Yeah, and if you’re paying in paper, you may have to fork over a few more bills. Which is why the United States Mint was founded in 1792-1793, to produce the standard coin that would be acceptable in all the different states, to eliminate these problems.
Lloyd: Finally got it done sometime after the Civil War.
Lloyd: I still remember, in my lifetime, the United States went off the gold and silver certificates, and began printing federal notes, and the truth of the matter is, they’re not backed up by anything.
Lloyd: I like that.
Erik: But they get away with it.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often; we’ll post more for you to download and hear.