By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
As I write this, my wife and I are still recovering from nagging coughs we picked up on our 17-day trip to Italy in July. This was actually our second visit to Italy, having spent a couple of weeks there 49 years ago during our nearly seven-week tour of England and Western Europe.
My, how things have changed in nearly half a century. One thing that hasn’t changed is the weather. As in 1969, it was hot and humid. Having lived in Mississippi for nearly 50 years, you would think we would be used to that kind of weather.
What made things worse were the crowds, the hordes of tourists. We did not remember such crowds in our earlier visit. As just one example, we recall going into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice to cool off and rest awhile in 1969. In 2018, there was a line a block long of people waiting to enter the Basilica.
Once inside, people were herded through without stopping; no photographs were allowed, and the seating was roped off! Of course, I shouldn’t complain about the tourists, as we were tourists ourselves. As you can tell, our actions in St. Mark’s in 1969 would be impossible in 2018.
In recent trips to England and France, we have been able to charge most of our meals on credit cards, which cut down on the need to carry large amounts of cash. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Italy.
We landed in Rome with approximately 800 euros, for which we had paid slightly more than $1,000. I knew that we would not get a great exchange rate through the bank and would have to pay a small service charge as well, but my wife wanted the assurance of the cash. I had asked for a mix of denominations, so the 800 euros came in the form of 50s, 20s, 10s, and 5s, there being no euro notes smaller than 5s.
I hadn’t specified that I didn’t want anything larger than 50s, but I was glad that I didn’t have any 100s, as these would have been hard to change in the restaurants where we ate. There are also 200-euro notes, but I didn’t see any of them.
We found that the larger, more upscale restaurants generally took credit cards. Smaller mom-and-pop operations were typically cash-only businesses, which was also true for some souvenir shops.
In the U.S., only three coins are commonly encountered in circulation: the nickel, dime, and quarter. The cent is often a throw-away piece, although I suspect there are untold billions in jars and boxes throughout the country.
By contrast, there are eight different circulating coins in Italy, and I managed to get home with at least one of each denomination. Like the dollar, the euro is divided into 100 cents. Denominations are 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, 1 euro and 2 euros.
All except one of the euro coins are round, the oddity being the 20c piece, which is minted on a planchet called Spanish flower. According to Wikipedia, the Spanish flower shape “... consists of a smooth edge separated into equal sections by seven indents. At least two coin issuers, the European Union and Fiji, have mentioned explicitly that the Spanish flower shape was chosen to help the visually-impaired.” At a quick glance, the 20c piece appears to be round with regularly spaced rim damage.
The three lowest denominations (1c, 2c, 5c) are bronze-colored, copper-coated steel. All have smooth edges, with the 2c piece also having a groove. It looks like the two halves, obverse and reverse, were simply glued together.
The next three denominations have a gold color and are made of a material called Nordic gold. According to Wikipedia, “Nordic gold is the gold-coloured copper alloy from which the middle three denominations of euro coins, 50 cent, 20 cent, and 10 cent coins are made. ... Its composition is 89% copper, 5% aluminium, 5% zinc, and 1% tin.” Like our latest dollar coins, there’s no gold in the composition.
The edge treatment of the 20c piece is described above. The other two denominations have what is described as a “shaped edge with fine scallops.” Actually, the coins appear to have a reeded edge, with reeds larger than found on U.S. coins.
The two largest-denomination coins have a circular center of one color with a surround of a different color. Specifically, the 1 euro piece has a silver-colored center made of copper-nickel (like our 5-cent piece) and a gold-colored surround made of nickel brass. The 2-euro coin reverses the colors of the center and surround (center, gold-colored; surround, silver-colored).
In terms of their edge treatment, the 1 euro piece has what is called an interrupted milled edge. It looks like the coin was intended to have a finely reeded edge, but the reeding is missing in places. The edge on the 2-euro coin is finely reeded all around.
The different denominations also vary in diameter and thickness. I suspect that the different edge treatments and size differences make the coins easy to identify by persons with impaired vision.
As for their utility in commerce, the most useful coins are the three larger denominations: 50c, 1 euro, and 2 euros. The 2-euro pieces roughly correspond to our $1 and $2 bills. Once again, I’m struck by the realization that if $1 and $2 bills didn’t exist, coins of that denomination would actually circulate as the euro coins do.
Many of my expenditures involved the 2-euro pieces. For example, our coach driver kept a supply of bottled water that he would sell you for 1 euro. This was often the price for similar bottles sold by vendors who worked the perspiring crowds around the favorite tourist sites (e.g., the Trevi fountain in Rome, the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the ruins of Pompeii).
My wife tends to acquire postcards in each city we visit. These typically sold for 50c each or five for 2 euros. These were handily purchased with a coin or two from my pocket.
With many places tending toward the use of plastic money, as a traveling numismatist I was encouraged by the rational use of cash in Italy.
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
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