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Continental Coins and Currency

When did you first become aware of money? Was it when your parents first gave you an allowance? When your parents argued about how they were going to pay for something? When you lost your first baby tooth and had a visit from the Tooth Fairy?

In fact, if you really think about it, you grew up in a world of money. There were coins that you found fascinating. Paper money that you used to purchase some of those fascinating coins. The check you got when you had a summer job.

Money nowadays comes in a variety of forms, but what was it like in the gestation years of America? If you had been born in the middle of the 18th century, what money would you have found?

A Guide Book of United States Coins (aka the Red Book) tells us that the immigrants to our shores initially had little use for coined money. However, this attitude changed when goods arrived from Europe, as coins were expected in payment. Foreign coins were readily accepted, with coins such as the “. . . French louis, English guineas, German thalers, Dutch ducats, and various Spanish coins. . ..” being particularly popular. Spanish milled dollars, or pieces of eight, were especially favored.

A $3 note with the image of an eagle atop a crane, including the motto Exits in Dubio Est, meaning “the end is in doubt.”

A $3 note with the image of an eagle atop a crane, including the motto Exits in Dubio Est, meaning “the end is in doubt.”

A new country, which is what many of the colonists hoped to form following their battle for independence, needed its own money, and David Bowers’ A Guide Book of Continental Currency and Coins tells the story of that money. Bowers is renowned as a coin dealer, lecturer, and above all, author of innumerable articles and books. He has served as the president of both the American Numismatic Association and the Professional Numismatists Guild, and his many awards include the ANA’s highest award, the Farran Zerbe Award. As a numismatic author, he “. . . has received more Book of the Year Awards and Best Columnist honors given by the Numismatic Literary Guild than any other writer.”

As you might infer from the title, this guide to Continental Currency and Coins is divided into two sections, the first devoted to Continental Currency Bills (1775-1779) and the second to Continental Dollars (1776). Each section has multiple chapters.

One of the accomplishments of the May 10, 1775 meeting of the Continental Congress was to authorize paper money issuance. With no backing of precious metal, the issued notes were just a promise of future value following successful conduct of a war against the “. . . greatest military on earth. . ..” Success, of course, was not a foregone conclusion.

But money to finance the military was a necessity, and with no taxing authority, where would the Continental Congress get this money? It would print it, of course.

Denominations of the first bills were to be from $1 to $8 in the amounts of 40,000 of each bill. In addition, there would be another 11,800 $20 notes and enough $30 bills to total a million Spanish milled dollars. It’s undoubtedly significant that the committee in charge of the money printing operation included polymath and genius Benjamin Franklin, who got his start as a printer.

With its lack of backing, it’s not surprising that the Continental Currency soon depreciated relative to silver and gold coins. How were people forced to use the currency? Let’s just say that the “stick” was employed more than the “carrot.”

As just one example of such a stick, Bowers cited an action taken against Cornelius Dyckman, of Norwalk, Conn. Dyckman had publicly offered to sell Continental Currency at a discount for silver coinage, and for this sin the Norwalk Committee requested “. . . all persons to refrain all dealings and intercourse with said Dyckman.” In other words, he was to be ostracized by the community.

Depreciation of the currency was so great that by the time of the last issue, $80 bills were “. . . needed to make up for the loss in purchasing power of the bills.” As just one illustration of the loss of value, Bowers cited a January 1881 bill of sale on which items were valued in Continental Currency. A pair of boots cost $600 and four handkerchiefs an astounding $400! The total bill came to 3,144 British pounds if paid in paper or 18 pounds, 10 shillings if paid in silver.

Counterfeiting was another element contributing to depreciation of the value of the bills.

According to Wikipedia, “Another problem was that the British successfully waged economic warfare by counterfeiting Continentals on a large scale. Benjamin Franklin later wrote: ‘The artists they employed performed so well that immense quantities of these counterfeits which issued from the British government in New York, were circulated among the inhabitants of all the states, before the fraud was detected. This operated significantly in depreciating the whole mass.’”

I’m reminded of an article I read about the counterfeiting of Confederate currency by the North during the Civil War. Because of the printing expertise enjoyed by the North, their counterfeit Southern currency can be recognized because it’s superior to the actual notes being counterfeited.

I suspect this is also true of contemporary counterfeits of Continental Currency. On a section about collecting Continental Currency, Bowers wrote, “Contemporary counterfeits (made during the era of the originals) of Continental Currency bills, described and sold as such, are collected by many numismatists and often sell for more than the genuine bills they mimic.” Because they look better?

Although often clever, the mottoes and emblems found on Continental Currency were mostly not original thoughts of the designers. Instead, they were selected by Benjamin Franklin, perhaps influenced by a 1605 book of mottoes by Dr. Joachim Camerarius.

A $1 note dated Feb. 17, 1776. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

A $1 note dated Feb. 17, 1776. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

Examples of such mottoes include FUGIO and MIND YOUR BUSINESS, DEPRESSA RESURGIT, and EXITUS IN DUBIO EST. Fugio, which literally translates to “I fly,” refers to time’s fleeting nature, or “time flies.” It’s illustrated with a sundial on several fractional (for example, half dollar) notes as well as on the 1776 Continental dollar coin and the 1787 Fugio cent.

Depressa Resurgit is illustrated with a thistle plant being depressed by a large basket with a board on top of it. This refers to the subjugation of the American colonies by the British, and the motto means that even though the colonies are depressed they will rise again. This is found on the $1 note.

Exitus in Dubio Est means that the end is in doubt. It is illustrated by an eagle atop a crane. Although the eagle is the more powerful bird, the crane’s sharp, pointed beak may render a fatal thrust. The eagle, ironically as it turns out, represents England, whereas the crane symbolizes the United States. This motto adorns the $3 note.

$80 Continental Currency Note dated Jan. 14, 1779. The $80 notes were created in response to the depreciation of the currency of the time.

$80 Continental Currency Note dated Jan. 14, 1779. The $80 notes were created in response to the depreciation of the currency of the time.

Chapter 3, “Continental Bills Issued,” enumerates and illustrates Continental currency. As Bowers noted, the first notes “. . . were issued with high hopes.” After all, the motifs and mottoes were supposed to arouse the patriotic fervor of the people, who would accept the notes at face value and use them as they would gold and silver. Unfortunately, any acceptance of the bills at face value was short-lived.

Each note occupies its own page in the chapter, with the horizontally oriented front design atop the vertically oriented back design. To illustrate, the $3 note on page 50, Whitman-8501, has the DEPRESSA RESURGIT motto with related weighed-down thistle illustration on the front and a nature printing on the back (one ragweed leaf and two willow leaves). Printed by Hall and Sellers, the bill was signed by Thomas Coombe and Ellis Lewis.

Values are given for 2009 and 2020 in seven grades from VG-8 to Unc-65. The much higher values in 2020 well illustrate the increased interest in this area of collecting.

A note at the bottom of the page reads, “Values for notes above $100 are for certified (professionally graded) pieces.” In fact, for this bill, all the 2020 values are greater than $100. In addition, the fact that no values are given for the note in the top two grades reveals the rarity of the issue in grades above AU-50.

You’ll recall that I mentioned counterfeiting earlier as one of the factors causing the rapid depreciation of Continental Currency. At the end of the third chapter, there’s a further section on counterfeiting of the bills. According to the text, “This was the first widespread use of counterfeiting as a weapon of war, and it pushed the Continental Congress to the brink of insolvency.” A figure in this section shows a partial counterfeit plate for $30 bills found in South Carolina in the 1930s. Below the plate is the reverse of 18 pence note with the sentence, “To counterfeit is death.” Apparently, this admonition wasn’t enough of a deterrent to prevent wholesale counterfeiting.

The chapter ends with the following statement: “Counterfeiting proved to be a very effective weapon and had multiple effects, including increasing the distrust of Continental Currency by citizens and forcing Congress to enact legislation recalling certain issues that were extensively copied.”

A 1787 Fugio cent, featuring the motto “MIND YOUR BUSINESS” beneath the design of a sundial.

A 1787 Fugio cent, featuring the motto “MIND YOUR BUSINESS” beneath the design of a sundial.

As noted earlier, the second part of the book is devoted to the Continental dollar. This is described as a large coin (at 41 mm in diameter, slightly larger than a silver dollar at 38.1 mm). The coin has the words CONTINENTAL CURRENCY and the date 1776 in an outer ring. Currency actually had three spellings: CURRENCY, CURENCY, and CURRENCEY. The second ring has the word FUGIO, and the inner ring has a sundial with the sun’s rays beaming down. Below the sundial are the words MIND YOUR BUSINESS.

Continuing with the annular theme, the outer ring on the reverse consists of intertwined circles bearing the names of the 13 colonies, some of which are abbreviated. Within this ring, is another with the words AMERICAN CONGRESS, which encloses an inner circle enclosing the words WE ARE ONE.

Both the obverse and reverse designs are the same as those on Continental Congress fractional currency, such as the W-8519 one sixth of a dollar and W-8520 one third of a dollar bill. Most Continental dollars are made of pewter.

There’s a great mystery concerning the origin and distribution of Continental dollars. According to a 2018 article by John Kleeberg titled “The Continental Dollar; British Medals or American Coins,” the coins were made in the vicinity of New York City, fell into British hands when the city was quickly captured, and were transported to England without ever being released in the United States. Although this seems plausible, the chapter on the history of Continental dollars closes with the statement, “In time, perhaps some contemporary (1776) documentation of the 1776 Continental dollar will be found.”

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Chapter 6 is devoted to varieties of Continental dollars. For each variety shown, identifying information is given, a specific example is pictured, and selected auction prices are listed. As just one example, there’s W-8470, a coin struck over a cut-down Spanish-American 8 reales piece, which has the correct spelling of currency as well as EG FECIT on the obverse. EG FECIT is Latin for “made by EG,” who might have been either Elbridge Gerry, an American political figure, or Elisha Gallaudet, who was an American engraver. The latter would seem to be the most likely of the pair because of his engraving skills, but there apparently is no definitive evidence for this conclusion.

The illustrated coin is from the Eric Newman collection, and the variety has a Universal Rarity Scale designation of 2. This translates to 2 known, which undoubtedly explains the auction sale prices of well over a million dollars in 2014 and 2015.

The book closes with seven appendices addressing topics such as signers of Continental Currency, Continental dollar copies, Red Book coverage of the Continental dollar, and how to recognize contemporary counterfeits of Continental Currency. There’s even an appendix devoted to Benjamin Franklin’s security printing genius and how it influenced the evolution of American currency both in his lifetime and later.

The book is richly illustrated throughout and is a quality product from start to finish. If you have an interest in collecting Continental Currency, this book should occupy a favored space in your numismatic library. The paperback version has a modest list price of $19.95, and you can find multiple copies for sale on such online sites as Amazon and eBay. It’s also still available from the publisher at whitman.com.