In the mid-1500’s, additional silver deposits were discovered in the colonial territories and there was a pressing demand to export it to Spain. Starting in the reign of Philip II, the mints produced irregular coinage called cobs. Instead of rolling out a bar of silver into a sheet of a specific thickness that could then be cut into smooth round planchets; a bar of silver was simply cut into chunks of the appropriate weight. These small sliver clumps were then treated as if they were finished planchets and got hammer struck between crude dies. The size, shape and impression of these cobs were highly irregular but they were the proper weight, cobs were quite thick and disfigured with large cracks. The uneven clumps made poor planchets and it was common for only a small portion of the image on the die to be impressed on the silver. If a cob was overweight the minter simply clipped a piece off, further disfiguring the coin. During the seventeenth century a few full sized finished coins called “royal or presentation strikes” by present day collectors were also produced but it was only the crude cob that was mass produced.
With intention of easily being able to ship to Spain, these crude but accurately weighed cobs were produced. In Spain the cobs would be melted down to produce silver jewelry, coins, bars and other items. Cobs also circulated as coinage, with many cobs making their way to the English colonies where they were used both as coins in commerce and hoarded for their silver content. The cobs’ unusual shape and sizes made it quite easy for colonials to clip off some silver and then pass the coin off at full value. Furthermore, because of their crude design it was easy to make lightweight counterfeit cobs using the clipped silver. Many clipped and lightweight Spanish cobs were melted down in Boston to make the Massachusetts silver coinage.
Cobs were produced in denominations of one, two, four and eight reales under Philip II (1556-1598) and Philip III (1598-1621). A half real cob was added under Philip IV (1621-1665). Cobs continued to be produced through the reigns of Charles II (1665-1700), Philip V (1700-1724 and 1725-1746), Louis I (1725), Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788). The obverse of a cob displays the crowned Hapsburg shield with the mintmark and assayer initial to the left and the denomination to the right of the shield. The legend, although frequently missing from the planchet, was some variation of the name of the king with DEI GRATIA (By the Grace of God). The reverse displays the arms of Castile and Leon within a quatrefoil design. Starting in the seventeenth century most cobs were dated but this information was added to the obverse legend and was usually not picked up in the stamping of the coin.
The first mint in the Americas was established in Mexico City in 1535. A royal decree authorized Herman Cortes to “melt, cast, mark, and put aside the royal-fifth” of the precious metals taken from the Aztecs; he set up the foundry in the palace of Axayacatl. The Casa de Moneda was officially established when the Queen of Spain signed the Viceroyalty of New Spain into existence on May 11, 1535. The mint began operations in April of 1536.
British colonists were usually prohibited by law from minting coins (with a few exceptions), and colonists often found themselves using Spanish coins. During the Revolutionary War, the new nation tried to implement paper currency, which quickly collapsed. (For fans of the musical “Hamilton,” this is referenced when the young aide-de-camp sings, “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance, they only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”) Spanish dollars continued to be used as reliable currency; when cut into eight pieces, each 1-real piece was referred to as a “bit.” The United States established its own currency in 1792, with the creation of the US Mint, but the terms “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar” have remained in our vocabulary for over 200 years.
Dating and locating a cob can be difficult. If an assayer’s initials are present and the mint is known then some dating parameters may be determined, as the dates of appointment are available for many assayers. Also, particular details on the obverse shield differ for each ruler so some examples without other clues can often be dated to a specific king, if the shield is distinct. If the mintmark is missing the reverse cross may assist in identifying the mint. Such as, a Jerusalem cross with a ball at each extremity denotes the Mexico mint. A variety of other specific details may assist in making attributions; consultation of regional studies may allow one to narrow the possibilities, especially if a coin can be assigned to a specific time period.