The Early Coin History in the US

This month lets look back at the history of coins in the US. Coins are the foundation of the vending industry.  The first vending machine was coin operated.  Current machines offer many payment options, but coins are still a mainstay of the industry. 

Colonial New England Willow Shillings

There were three general types of money in the colonies of British America: specie (coins), paper money, and commodity money.  Commodity money was a common currency because cash (coins and paper money) was normally scarce. Commodities such as tobacco, beaver skins, and wampum served as money at various times and places.

The first officially sanctioned coinage to circulate in the United States was the Spanish Real, or piece of eight. It was recognized until 1857.  The first official coin actually minted and circulated by the United States was the half disme or half dime.  According to legend, these first half disme coins were minted from Martha Washington’s silverware. 

When Was The First Coin Made in The United State?

The standard answer is 1792.  That is because the US Mint was established by the Coinage Act of 1972.  The first coins authorized and minted in that first year were the:

  • $10 gold eagle with 270 grains (17.5g) of pure gold
  • $5 gold half eagles with 135 grains (8.75g) of pure gold
  • $2.50 quarter eagles with 67 and 4/8 grains (4.37g) of standard gold
  • $1 dollars with 416 grains (27g) of pure silver
  • Half dollars with 208 grains (13.5g) of standard silver
  • Quarter dollars with 104 grains (6.74g) of standard silver
  • Dimes, spelled “dismes” until the 1800s, had 41 and 3/5 grains (2.7g) of silver
  • Half dimes with 20 and 4/5 grains (1.35g) of standard silver
  • One cent with 11 pennyweights (17.1g) of copper
  • Half cents with 5 and 1/2 pennyweights (8.55g) of copper;

The First American Coin

But these were not the first coins minted in our nation.  When the newly freed colonies were still governed by the Articles of Confederation, Robert Morris was the superintendent of finance for the United States from 1781 to 1784.  Morris, a Philadelphia merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence had proposed a different set of coins. 

Our coin system was almost drastically different. His monetary plan called for a five denomination set: a silver 1,000-unit mark, a silver 500-unit quint, a silver 100-unit bit, an 8-unit copper, and a 5-unit copper.

In an April 2, 1783, entry in his diary, Morris writes of “a Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an American Coin.”  Alexander Hamilton, who later became the first US Treasury Secretary, visited to examine the coin and corresponded with Morris about the coins.

Later that month he produced a more complete set of these new coins and forwarded them to Thomas Jefferson for his consideration.

The first “500” quint was a 1783 plain obverse Nova Constellatio “quint” silver coin.

Front and rear views of a 500Quint coin
The 500 Quint Coin

The Continental Congress authorized Morris to create a prototype currency system as part of the nation-building process. He based his currency on the Spanish dollar.  Congress never adopted or distributed the 500 quint coin.  Still, the first coin authorized by Congress and technically the first coin produced by our fledgling nation was the 500 quint.

It is interesting to stop and look back at our coin history.  We see our coins and currency almost was quite different.

Read more about Coin History.

Cascade of coins

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