What Were They Worth? [Stamp & Coin Mart, April 2010, Pages 98, 99]
Coin and antiquities expert Brett Hammond looks at some popular low denomination collectors' coins and asks what where they worth as money?

Economists say money is worth what money will buy. But such a mathematical and unemotional approach to currencies places no value on the aesthetic pleasures of numismatics; of buying and owning coins for the satisfaction they provide as collectors' items. Economists can't put a figure on that. Nevertheless we can add interest to the coins in our collections if we turn back the clock to the time - and a surprisingly long time it was - when coins truly were worth what they would buy. Our present-day money; the £10 notes that spew out at us from hole-in-the-wall machines, for example; are part of what is termed a fiduciary currency. We all know that the paper and ink in a ten pound note are worth less than ten pence; but we have faith in the Bank of England's promise to pay us £10 for that piece of paper if we demand the value printed on it. That's what fiduciary means.

In Ancient Greece, where metal money was invented around 600 BC, mints in most cities struck silver coins in two denominations. The drachma (the word meant a fistful - as in A Fistful Of Dollars) was six times as heavy as an obol, which took its name from oboloi meaning metal stick. Six of the metal sticks were considered a fistful. So one drachma = 6 obols ... and 1 obol = 1/6th of a drachma.

A skilled city tradesman earned 2 drachmas per day. An unskilled man earned ½ a drachma, or 3 obols. A professional man, such as a doctor, earned up to 6 drachmas per day. Spending their earnings in the marketplace, they paid:
1 obol for a loaf of bread.
8 drachmas for a lamb.
5 drachmas for a jar of olive oil.
10 drachmas for a pair of shoes.
250 drachmas for a slave.
800 drachmas for a house.

The Romans issued a confusion of coin denominations during their long history as a republic and an empire; but if we confine ourselves to the everyday money that changed hands in the Forum ( market-place) around 200 BC we find the sestertius - a large bronze coin perhaps 30mm in diameter - in widespread everyday use.

More valuable, the silver denarius, from which we took the d in our 3d, 6d, etc., had a value equal to four sestertii in those days. Below the sestertius the Romans had the dupondius, a small coin struck in yellow brass, and worth half a sesterius. Below the dupondius came the as (plural asses) worth four to a sestertius.

What would those coins have bought? Well, the grain harvest provided the foundation of most Roman diets, and in a small rural community on Rome's outskirts a baked loaf of bread cost one as. In the city itself the same loaf cost twice as much - one dupondius. However, most citizens bought grain and made their own bread. The standard measure for grain was a modius, which held about two gallons - enough to bake twenty loves weighing one-pound each. In Republican days ( circa 200-150 BC) a common soldier in one of Rome's mighty legions earned 3 asses per day, and paid 4 asses for a modius of grain.

Before The Romans absorbed Celtic Britain into their empire, some British tribes had local currencies; but they left no written records to inform us about the buying powers of their gold and silver money. We must move forward four or five centuries for the next reliable information on what money would buy. The first widely circulated money of the Saxons, who occupied England when the Romans departed, was the sceatta, a small, attractive silver coin first mentioned in the laws of Æthelberht, King of Kent, in the 7th century. Sceattas were minted throughout much of England, and in Frisia and Jutland, making them a truly international currency. Before the advent of metal detectors, which have unearthed many thousands of examples, it was believed that the use of sceattas was limited to the transfer of bullion, or to the hoarding of wealth. More recently some authorities have suggested that they circulated abundantly at markets, and had a value roughly equal to one suckling pig or two dozen large loaves of bread.

A few years prior to the first Viking raids on England, the Saxons began minting a new silver coin - the pennig, or penny - as we say in modern English. It was introduced circa AD 755 by Offa, king of Mercia, who modelled it on a coin struck on the Continent by Pippin, father of Charlemange. Offa minted pennies weighing 22½ grains, making 240 pennies equal to one Saxon pound in weight. And there were still 240 bronze pennies in the pre-decimal English pound more than a thousand years later.

Although records are meagre for the eighth century, we do know that even a single silver penny had considerable buying power - perhaps the equivalent of £10 in modern currency terms. Nevertheless these coins circulated in towns and at rural markets across the land. However, the value of a whole penny was too great for small transactions, so the coins were often cut into halves and quarters for use as smaller change. The quarters became known as fourthings (farthings in modern English). Together with halfpence and pennies, they satisfied the buying requirements of most people in England for the next three hundred years. (The very poorest in society, to whom even a farthing was a great expense, may have resorted to lead or pewter tokens, perhaps even to barter, for their humble needs.)

In 1279 Edward I (1272-1307) acknowledged the need for larger and smaller denominations since the penny had not changed much in 500 years. A round groat (4d), round halfpenny and round farthing were successfully introduced. Later Edward III (1327-1377) added a round half-groat (= 2d) which also proved popular among the less well-off. Here are some prices quoted from surviving records of this period:
1 farthing bought a pint of ale.
1 halfpenny bought a chicken ... or a pound of cheese.
1 penny bought two dozen eggs ... or four pigeons ... or a pound of apples.
24 pennies were needed to buy a pig.
3 farthings were paid to a labourer for a day's hiring.

Over the next three hundred years the purchasing power of silver steady declined and the number of pennies needed for small purchases increased. By the time Elizabeth I came to rule in 1558 the tills of shop-keepers and market traders were clogged. To alleviate the difficulties the queen introduced three new multiple pence pieces: the shilling (= 12 pennies), sixpence and three-pence. She also ordered the minting of three-halfpence and three-farthings coins so that a customer could proffer a penny when making a farthing purchase and receive a single coin in change. As the Tudor Age drew to a close, here is what people were paying for everyday essentials circa 1600:
1 penny bought a quart of the best ale ... or a pound of best beef.
3 1/2 pence bought a pound of best butter.
2 1/2 pence bought a pound of best cheese.
1 shilling and four-pence (16d) bought a fat pig.
8 pence bought a brace of chickens.
10 pence bought a brace of rabbits.
1 shilling (12d) bought a dozen pigeons.
A groat (4d) bought 16 tallow candles.
1 penny bought three half-pound loaves.

The final coinage of silver pence for general circulation came in the reign of Charles II, who issued the first copper halfpence; but it was not until 1799, in George III's reign, that small denomination copper coins became as common in pockets and purses as silver pennies had been during the previous one thousand years.
*Note. Help with illustrations for this feature was given by the Wildwinds project, www.wildwinds.com , the online numismatic reference, whose only UK sponsor at the time of writing is TimeLine Originals. If you visit the web pages of TimeLine Originals you can browse many other examples of the coins discussed here.

View Article Scan...