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20-cent piece two 'bits' of history

One of the more interesting stories about the short-lived U.S. 20-cent piece, introduced into circulation in 1875, can be found in a classic 1876 book related to Virginia City, Nev.'s famous Comstock Lode. It's titled The Big Bonanza and was written by Dan De Quille (William Wright), editor of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and a good friend of Mark Twain.

The 20-cent piece was produced for use primarily in the West, where small change was in short supply. Its primary backer was Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones, a veteran of the Comstock, and it received support from those few who advocated a metric coinage system and others who thought the coin might help absorb some of the oversupply of silver then weighing down the country.


That it would be of some use, at least in Western saloons, was clearly shown by De Quille. In his chapter, "Saloon Birds," De Quille explained that Virginia City had about 100 saloons (a high number, but one that went with satisfying the demands of thirsty, hardworking hardrock miners), most of which were what was called "bit" houses, where "...drinks of all kinds and cigars are one bit—twelve and one half cents. The dime, however, passes as a 'bit' in all of these houses."

Being short of 12 1/2 cents, De Quille explained, it was sometimes referred to as a "short bit," but was still considered the equal of half of the quarter. Thus, in a bit house, whenever a customer tendered a quarter for his cigar or drink, he got back a dime, losing five cents in the transaction. Jones' 20-cent piece, De Quille assured, would cure this ill.


It wasn't a problem in the two-bit houses, as everything there went for a quarter, even, De Quille observed, that which sold in the bit houses for 10 cents, including beer, soda water and lemonade. However, in some cases, ambiance was apparently all you were getting in choosing the two-bit house over the one-bit house, as evidenced by the following passage from The Big Bonanza.

"A man one day sauntered into a two-bit saloon and called for drink of whisky. The proprietor of the place was behind the bar and set out the bourbon bottle. When the man had drunk he threw a ten-cent piece on the counter and started off.

'This is a two-bit house, sir,' said the proprietor in a tone which showed that he felt pride in the establishment.

'Ah!' said the customer. 'Two bit house, eh? Well, I thought so when I came in, but after I had tasted your whisky I concluded it was a bit house."

Despite its importance to those who populated Virginia City's at times raucous drinking establishments, the 20-cent piece was not popular with much of the rest of the public. Being too close in size and design to the 25-cent piece, it was often confused and therefore shunned. Coinage ended in 1878, two short years, or a bit, after it began.