It’s been a while since I wrote a history blog post – so long in fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if, reading this now, you had no idea I did them at all (since you most likely came from Twitter and my account is much bigger now than it was when I did history writing.)
I just hadn’t had the urge. I’ve been busy doing other things, like drawing maps and writing books. Recently though, that changed.
I bought an old coin.
It’s something I’ve been thinking of doing for a long time now. I’ve spent several evenings browsing different sellers’ sites, looking at everything from the gold coins of 1600s Spanish treasure ships to Dutch VoC coins from the East Indies. I’d oogle at them like a kid in Toys R Us before eventually closing the tab. For some reason, I was reluctant to make that final step.
(Yes, I know I’m a nerd.)
I was doing this again last night when I stumbled across something different. A coin I slowly fell in love with the more I looked at it.
What made this coin special? Not the price, though that was a pleasant surprise because it was actually cheaper than most others I’d seen. No, it was the story.
This coin was a farthing. The seller was based in the US. The mint date on the coin? 1775, the year before the war for American independence kicked off.
It was a British farthing – which makes sense, of course, because the eastern states at that time were British colonies. British coins weren’t the only ones that circulated in the States, though, especially because the UK at the time had a bimetal policy that led to the overvaluing of gold and undervaluing of silver. They also passed various laws in the colonies to establish a minimum value for silver coins, and restricting the values they could be sold at. This, along with the glut of silver flowing out of Spanish South America, and the fact that the British government maintained official exchange rates for many European coins, meant that most colonial Americans were just as comfortable trading in thalers, dollars, guineas and livres.
So at first I was drawn by the poetic beauty of owning a British coin minted in the year 1775. This coin has seen the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the toppling of absolute monarchy across Europe. I liked the idea of being able to hold a coin older than the tradition of democratic revolution and value; a poignant reminder of its preciousness, and how it wasn’t so long ago that authoritarianism was the norm.
I also loved that it was coming from an American seller – because it meant that it was possibly in circulation during the American Revolution, though I couldn’t be sure.
Even after this, though, I wasn’t totally convinced I wanted to buy it until I looked closer at the head.
Like all British coins, it was minted with the head of the current sovereign, George III – a name familiar to American history buffs, I’m sure. The head was obviously faded and worn by time, but there are four clear score marks through it – four cuts. This was a method of defacing a coin – an act of rebellion, a way of showing disrespect to a monarch or country.
This sealed it for me. Because it completed that story: it was proof that, once upon a time, an American revolutionary held that coin in their hand and decided to damage it in the name of independence. It’s a piece of history, it travelled through those events and was part of them. In the almost-words of Marge Simpson, I just think that’s neat.