How Mexico’s Remarkable Peso Revolutionized the World

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

 

In honor of the holiday, let’s take a moment to learn about and celebrate Mexican coins.

 

Both pesos and dollars originated in the Spanish dollar of the 15th-19th centuries. The word “peso” was originally used to refer to pesos oro and pesos plata (gold and silver weights, respectively.) In fact, the literal translation of peso is “weight.”

 

Peso was the original name of the legendary Spanish “pieces of eight” coins issued in Mexico, sometimes called Spanish dollars. Each peso was valued at 8 reales; the escudo coin was worth 16 reales. These coins were widely circulated in the Americas through the mid 1800’s; America accepted them as legal tender prior to the Coinage Act in 1857, and Canada did the same until 1854. The first American dollar coins were not minted until 1792, and their value was set to approximately match the Spanish dollar.

 

The first decimation of the peso occurred in 1863, with the issue of centavo coins, each valued at one hundredth of a peso. The first peso denomination coins were issued in 1866, though reales denominated coins were still issued until 1897.

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The gold content of the peso was cut nearly in half in 1905, but the silver content was unchanged until 1918, while other coins were debased. Silver coins, except for the 1 peso, were limited to token issues, and several varieties of centavos were issued in bronze, nickel, and other metals.

 

CaballitoOne of the most striking of Mexican coins was created during this period: the Caballito. It bore the Mexican coat of arms on the obverse with its now-familiar eagle and snake motif, with the legends, “Un Peso” and “Estados Unidos Mexicanos.” The reverse showed a woman on horseback reaching out a hand as if in proclamation, and the date. These stunning coins, minted in .903 silver, were minted from 1910 through 1914. After 1918, all silver coins declined in both weight and fineness, culminating in the last minting of silver 100-peso coins in 1977.

 

In 1993, a new currency was introduced: the nuevo peso. The new peso, written as N$ and designated MXN, equaled 1000 of the original MXP pesos. The Bank of Mexico began introducing bimetallic coins in 2003. There are 32 coins in this series: one for each Mexican state, and one for the Federal District. Each coin bears Mexico’s coat of arms on the obverse, with the state’s coat of arms on the reverse. They are rare in circulation, but remain a popular novelty coin. Collectors have been encouraged to acquire full sets, but as the coins are high in price, this has not been as successful as hoped. The coins also have a bullion version, with a gold outer ring instead of the aluminium bronze of the standard coins.

 

AUPeso.jpgMexican bullion coins are available in several weights, in both .999 fine silver and fine gold. On one side, a winged Victoria strides across a landscape, with the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl in the background. The coat of arms of Mexico is shown on the other side. Newer versions show Victoria at a different angle, and the Mexican coat of arms on the reverse is surrounded by other coats of arms from Mexican history.

 

Today, the peso is third most-traded currency from the Americas, the most traded Latin American currency, and the eighth most traded currency in the world. It served as the model for multiple world currencies, including the Straits dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan, largely due to the trade and influence of the Spanish empire. 19th century Siam briefly used the Mexican peso as legal tender, when an unexpected flood of foreign trade caught the government mints by surprise.

 

According to Collectors Weekly, “Of the coins from the early days of the Republica Mexicana, escudos and reales minted in the 1820s are in particularly high demand. […] Other Mexican coins of note include round lead centavos issued by the state of Durango in 1914 and rectangular copper Oaxacan centavos from 1915.”

 

Mexican coins are among the most popular in the world, and are an excellent starting point for beginners, as well as a good investment for more experienced collectors.

 

Image and share your Mexican coins with us through the Lookzee app to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with us! Now available on Google Play Store and App Store.

The Ladies Who Were Liberty

For much of America’s history, our coins featured Lady Liberty rather than any historic figure. Liberty has changed over the centuries, and many women have been models for the ideal: who are the women who are the face of Lady Liberty?

The Draped Bust Liberty: Ann Willing Bingham

draped_bust_se_half_dollarThe Draped Bust coin obverse design, in use from 1795 to 1807, was designed by Mint engraver Robert Scot to replace the Flowing Hair design, which was almost unanimously disliked. Though it cannot be conclusively proved, it is likely that Ann Willing Bingham, a socialite and considered one of the most lovely women of her day, was the inspiration for the Liberty on this coin. She was the subject of many portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, who created the image that Scot used for his engraving of Liberty on the Draped Bust coins.

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Ann Bingham was a regular correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, as well as other luminaries of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams wrote about her, “[Mrs. Bingham is] the finest lady I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance, or rather, I ought to say, its animation, the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners, convert you into admiration.” She often hosted members of the Federalist Party, including Alexander Hamilton, for informal debates at her house. She has sometimes been credited with convincing Thomas Jefferson on the necessity for the Bill of Rights. She died in at the age of 37 in 1801 after contracting a serious illness after the birth of her third child.

The Morgan Dollar Liberty: Anna Willess Williams

800px-1879S_Morgan_Dollar_NGC_MS67plus_Obverse.pngWhen Congress passed the Bland-Allison act, the Treasury began buying silver to mint into new coins, resulting in the need for a new silver dollar design to be stamped onto the newly-minted silver dollars. George Morgan, newly appointed to the Philadelphia Mint in 1876, begin taking intensive art classes; in 1877, he began work on the designs for the new coins. Morgan’s friend, artist Thomas Eakins, encouraged him to use Anna Willess Williams, an art student from Philadelphia, as a model. Morgan considered her profile to be flawless, and was struck by her “crowning glory” of golden hair.

Anna_Willess_Williams_1892.jpgThough she had been guaranteed anonymity, Anna Williams’ identity as the “Silver Dollar Girl” was outed by a reporter in 1879. She was flooded with letters and visitors, to her great distress. She was offered a role on stage that could have made her a great deal of money, but rejected it in favor of a teaching position. She later took a job as a teacher of kindergarten philosophy at $60 a month. When it became known that she was engaged in 1896, interest in Anna Williams was revived. However, the marriage never took place, and Anna preferred to spend her time talking about her role as the supervisor of kindergarten schools in Philadelphia. She suffered a bad fall in December of 1925, and died of a stroke the following April at the age of 68.

The Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty: Elsie Stevens

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The Walking Liberty design is considered one of the most beautiful designs among American coins. Created by sculptor Adolph Weinman, a German immigrant to the United States, the Walking Liberty may have been inspired by the “Sower” design on French coins. It is thought that the face of Liberty was modeled on Elsie Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens.

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Weinmann had earlier based his design for the Liberty on the Mercury dime on a bust he had sculpted of Elsie; the Stevens’ had rented an apartment from Weinmann from 1909 to 1916. (There is some evidence that silent film star Audrey Munson may have been the model instead, but most solid evidence points to Elsie.) Weinmann asked the young housewife to model for him, pinning her hair up under a winged cap that he said represented “freedom of thought.” The bust has been lost to history, though photographs of it remain.

The Peace Dollar Liberty: Teresa De Francisci

NNC-US-1921-1$-Peace_dollar.jpgDuring WWI, the German propaganda machine tried to spread the idea that the British government did not have enough silver to back all of their paper money in circulation, especially in India. The plan worked: the hoarding of precious metals caused silver prices to rise, increasing the cost of the British war effort. When the British turned to the United States to purchase silver, the government authorized the sale. This, however, resulted in a need for more silver US coins to be struck, and a new design was needed. Numismatists promoted the creation of a design celebrating peace following the war, and the idea caught on. 34-year-old Italian immigrant Anthony de Francisci produced a design that was unanimously selected for the coin; his wife, Teresa, was the inspiration for the Liberty on the obverse of the coin, though other elements were incorporated and stylized. De Francisci stated, “ I opened a window of my studio and let the wind blow on her hair while she was posing for me,” remarking later in 1922 that “the Liberty is not a photograph of Mrs. de Francisci. It is a composite face and in that way typifies something of America.”

teresadefrancisciTeresa de Francisci was born south of Naples, Italy, and came to America as a young child. Young Teresa was struck by the sight of the Statute of Liberty as their steamer ship approached Ellis Island, and often tried to imitate the pose as she grew up. She wrote in a letter to her brother, “You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony’s design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.” She was the first Italian-American to graduate from her high school. After the death of her husband in 1964, she was a frequent guest as numismatic events; on the 50th anniversary of the Peace dollar, she was presented with a plaque which read, “To a Lady of Peace.”

She passed away in Manhattan on October 20, 1990, 26 years to the day after the death of her husband.

The Bryan Dollar: When Silver Was a Major Election-Year Concern

 

 

Election years always stir up high emotions and strong opinions. Sometimes, the issues are perennial: the role of the press, how involved our country should be in international affairs, and other weighty matters. Other issues may be important during the year of the election, but fade from public view shortly afterward. An excellent example of the second type is the imbalance of value between silver and gold dollars; it’s not even a blip on the political landscape now, but it was a major plank in the Democratic party platform in 1896. This issue left its mark in a token known as the Bryan Dollar, named for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who supported the “Free Silver” position.

 

 

The late 19th century saw an imbalance in its precious metal dollar coins: both silver and gold coins had face value of a single dollar, but the gold in the dollar coin was worth nearly twice as much as the silver in the silver coin. The Bryan Dollars were created to illustrate this issue.

 

 

s-l1600 (2).jpgThese items (not truly coins, but also not tokens) are much larger than a standard silver dollar of the time, and illustrated how large a silver dollar would need to be to equal the value of the gold in a gold dollar coin. Several varieties exist, but all serve the same purpose: to inform the public about the perceived lack of silver in America’s silver coinage.

 

 

The Bryan dollars were struck by silversmiths on the East Coast during the election years of 1896 and 1900. According to So-CalledDollars.com, “They were more dignified in tone than many contemporary pieces issued for the same purpose, as latter usually were struck in base metal and were most satirical of Bryan and his cause. These silver medals showed comparative size and ratio of a dollar struck at the then-current price of silver with what it would be like if free coinage were to rule. They are much more than mere political pieces as they bore direct reference to the silver controversy and, hence, to our national coinage.”

 

 

Some of these coins feature shapes on the reverse of the coin, like a small circle or a wagon wheel, to indicate the size of a standard government dollar coin in comparison to the size of a coin needed to equal the metal value of the gold dollar.

 

 

1896GOP.JPGOther coins were soon struck to mimic and satirize the Bryan dollars, as well as the Free Silver position. Ronald Fern writes, “With respect to Satirical Bryan Money, Farran Zerbe states: ‘The Satirical class comprises those pieces of numerous variety in size material with derisive or humorous inscription or design. Most all are casts; a few were struck. Type metal, or some composition of lead and aluminum were the most commonly generally used materials, with iron, copper, tin and cardboard contributing a few varieties’. Thousands of such oversized coins were issued to ridicule the so-called Free Silver doctrine. Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan and his supporters advocated the free coinage of silver and a new, bi-metal monetary standard in which silver was valued at a ratio of 16:1 to gold.”

 

 

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Though the “Free Silver” system had many impassioned advocates, the country was already on a path to the credit system, and silver didn’t have enough time to challenge the existing single-metal gold standard. Bryan lost the election all three times he ran for the office of President.

Little Coins on the Prairie

 

 

laura_ingalls_wilder_cropped_sepia2One of the most formative book series for American children has been the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in the 1930’s and 40’s, these books chronicle Laura’s childhood and teenage years as her family traveled across the midwest during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. Though Laura made significant changes to her story at the urging of her publisher, the books are predominantly autobiographical. (Those wishing to know the story as it was originally written should read the recently-released book, Pioneer Girl.) Between the ages of 2 and 9, Laura and her family had lived in 5 locations: Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin again, and Minnesota. (The second stint in Wisconsin was the inspiration for Little House in the Big Woods, though it is the first in the series. According to Wilder biographer William Anderson, her publisher did not believe that she could have such vivid memories of her life at age 3, and insisted the timeline be changed and Laura’s age increased. The fictional and historical timelines merge at By the Shores of Silver Lake.)

 

Caroline_and_Charles_Ingalls_sepia_cropped.jpgCharles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was a restless man who moved the family often, usually to areas on the edge of a frontier, before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura’s parents and blind sister Mary remained there for the rest of their lives, and it was in De Smet that Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder, the farmer boy from her book of the same title. The couple spent their early married years in De Smet before moving to Minnesota and then Florida, eventually settling in Mansfield, Missouri, at Rocky Ridge Farm. It was at Rocky Ridge, in a house built for them by their daughter Rose (a popular author in her own right), that Laura finally sat down and wrote her story.

 

With the stability of coin denominations and designs in the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s easy to forget how different the coinage of the 19th century was. (President Theodore Roosevelt was a notorious critic of contemporary American coinage, writing in 1904 that “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.”

 

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Carson City Mint

The coins that Laura Ingalls would have seen during her childhood are very different from the coins we use today. Most of the coins Laura saw were likely created at the Philadelphia Mint (1792-present), though the Denver and San Francisco Mints also produced coinage. Though Mint facilities at Charlotte, NC, and Dahlonega, GA, were in operation shortly before Laura’s childhood, both only minted gold coins and were unlikely to produce anything the hardscrabble family would have owned, and both were shut down in 1861 after the Civil War. The New Orleans Mint (1838-1961, 1879-1909) would not come back into operations until Laura was twelve years old; when she was 3, the new Mint in Carson City began operations, producing predominantly silver coins from the rich local mines.

 

By the time she was 7, in 1874, Laura and her family were living on the banks of Plum Creek just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Charles Ingalls was the town butcher and served as the Justice of the Peace. With the family living closer to an established town, it is likely that Laura, Mary, and the other children would have seen more contemporary coins than they had grown up with.
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Lower-denomination coins would have been the most common; these included the Indian Head cent, the shield 2-cent and star 3-cent (both discontinued in 1873), bust 3-cent, and shield 5-cent coins. The two-cent shield design coin was the first to bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” but was only produced for ten years.

 

 

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One of the more common designs of the time, the Seated Liberty, appeared on half-dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins. More valuable coins would have included the coronet head gold coins in $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations, as well as the gold dollar coins. The silver trade dollar came into use in 1873, but as those were minted in the western mints and almost all of the coins used for overseas trade, it is unlikely that any of them would have been in circulation in a small Minnesota town.

 

 

NationalCashRegister.jpgIn 1870’s Minnesota, even a small coin had substantial buying power. The book Minnesota As It Is In 1870 records some of the costs of basic items: “Beef, by the quarter, costs 7 and 8 cts.; steaks and roasts, 15 to 18; pork, 81/2 to 10; steaks, 18 to 20; mutton, 15 to 20; hams, 20 to 25; venison, 8 cts., by the quantity; steaks, 18; chickens, 121/2 to 15; turkeys, 15 to 18; fish, 5 to 15; lard, 20 to 25; flour, $5 per parrel (sic); meal, 4 cts; buckwheat flour, $1.50 per sack; butter, 25 to 30 cts.; cheese, 20; eggs, 35 per dozen; potatoes, $1 per bushel; ruta bagas, 35 cts.; onions, 75 cts.; beans, $1.45 to $2.50; cranberries, $1.75 to $2.50; sugar, 14 to 16 cts. per lb.; coffee, 22 to 28; tea, 90 cts. to $1.80; woo, $6 to $7.50 per cord. Rents, $3 to $15 per month for cottages; $15 to $50 for larger houses. Board, $1 to $3 per day; $4 to $6 per week, day board; $4 to $10, board and lodging; lower in smaller towns […] Wages.–Carpenters, $2 to $3; masons, $3.50 to $4.50; painters, $2 to $3; laborers, $1.50 to $2; and by the month, $20 to $25, on farms; $35 to $60, on boats and in the pineries; servants, $8 to $15; clerks, $500 to $1800; teachers, $300 to $1500.” [Note: the last two salaries appear to be listed by year rather than day or hour.] These numbers are for St. Paul, and items were probably slightly cheaper in Walnut Grove.

 

1933-littlehouseontheprairieNot many purchases are recorded in Laura’s books, but she does mention a few significant ones. On the Straight Dope forum, user Choie offers a list of purchase amounts mentioned in the Little House books:

“A meal in a railroad hotel costs $0.25 (On the Shores of Silver Lake.) Also in LTotP [Little Town on the Prairie], Laura later earns $1.50 a week as a seamstress, with hours from 7AM – 6PM, and a half-hour for mealtime. Pa says of this workday, ‘That’s fair. You get off an hour early but have to bring your own meal.’ (User Lissla Lissar corrects this in a subsequent post: “In LTotP, Laura makes ‘$.25 a day plus dinner’, which is $1.25 a week.”) For her first teaching stint, Laura earns $25 (+ bed/board) for two months’ work. Later, as a more experienced teacher, she earns about $75 for teaching school for 3 months (These Happy Golden Years). In THGY, a parlour organ costs the Ingalls $100, $40 of which is Laura’s.”

 

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have defined an optimistic vision of America for generations of children and adults. Her experiences with life on the frontier, from coins to bears to one-room schoolhouses, are a reminder of our history and our commitment to progress.

 

The Coins and Currency of Brazil

 

 

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The Portuguese real (plural: réis) was the first currency used by the settlers in Brazil, but the 1654 Dutch real was the first circulating money to actually bear that name during the Dutch occupation of northeastern Brazil.

 

 

In the mid 18th century, coins of many denominations circulated: 5, 10, 20, and 40 réis coins in copper, 75, 150, 300, and 600 réis coins in silver, and 1000, 2000, 4000, and 6400 réis coins in gold. In 1778, the silver coinage was reconsidered, and coins in 80, 160, 320, and 640 réis were introduced; over the next few years, gold coins worth 800, 1600, and 3200 réis were added to circulation. Copper and silver coins were counterstamped with Portuguese arms in 1809, increasing the value of some coins, and doubling others. In the early 19th century, 8-real Spanish coins were overstruck, creating coins for 960 réis.

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587px-BRAZIL_1829_-20_REIS_a_-_Flickr_-_woody1778a.jpgWhen Brazil gained its independence in 1822, the real was retained; despite ever-growing inflation, the real was not subdivided into smaller denominations.During the decade of of 1823 and 1833, Brazilian copper coinage varied widely, including denominations of 10, 37½, 75, and 80 réis coins, amongst others. Copper coins were standardized by 1835; other reforms later in the century standardized gold and silver coins, and reduced the amount of precious metal in each. The currency fell in 1889 after the founding of the Republic, with further devaluations into the mid twentieth century. Cupro-nickel coins were introduced beginning in 1901, with aluminium-bronze coins coming in 1922, and other base metal coins in 1936. The cruzeiro replaced the real in 1942.

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In 1942, the cruzeiro was adopted as the currency of Brazil. The term “cruzeiro” refers to the Southern Cross constellation, which is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and is a common emblem in Brazilian culture.

 

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The initial cruzeiro was used between 1942 and 1967; according to Wikipedia, it “had the symbol Cr$ or ₢ (in Unicode U+20A2 ₢ CRUZEIRO SIGN (HTML ₢)). The ₢ sign was the only monetary symbol created specifically for Brazilian currencies: All the others used combinations of uppercase letters (in some cases, uppercase and lowercase) and the cifrão ($), including the current Brazilian real, which uses R$.” Cupro-nickel 10, 20, and 50 centavo coins were also introduced at this time, though the coins were quickly switched to aluminium-bronze and finally to aluminium. The centavos were withdrawn entirely in 1964, with other coins following suit by 1968.

 

 

s-l1600 (1)The second cruzeiro circulated from 1967 to 1986 after the country suffered economic collapse. Introduced as the “cruzeiro novo” or “new cruzeiro,” it used the symbol NCr before simply being known as the cruzeiro. In 1970, the symbol changed to Cr$; the original ₢ sign was eliminated due to lack of technical support: few typewriter keyboard carried the symbol. (In fact, the ₢ is still available for standard Brazilian keyboards; it can be produced with the key combination AltGr+C.) New coins appeared in 1967: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 centavo coins, with a 1 cruzeiro coin released in 1970. Several of the initial coins were struck in stainless steel; all of the coins were soon switched to steel.

 

A third cruzeiro was issued in 1990 after a series of currency changes, using the symbol Cr$. All cruzeiros could be divided into 100 centavos. This currency remained in use until 1993, when it was replaced by the cruzeiro real. The cruzeiro real, in turn, was only used for a few months between August 1, 1993, and June 30, 1994. It could be subdivided into 100 centavos, but this was only used for purposes of accounting. 1000 cruzeiros equaled 1 cruzeiro real.

 

Before the final switch to the current real was made, Brazil used the unidade real de valor, which was held at parity with the United States dollar. This allowed the people to get used to a stable currency before the introduction of the current real.

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5_CENTAVOS_Brasil_1998.jpgCurrently, the Brazilian real is subdivided into 100 centavos, and was adopted as part of the widespread reform package of the Plano Real in 1994. The real was intended to have a generally fixed exchange rate of 1:1 to the US dollar. In 1999, the real underwent a sudden devaluation and fell to 2:1 against the dollar, reaching as low as nearly 4:1 in 2002. It began to recover, but suffered a setback in 2015 during a domestic economic crisis.

 

The first new coins were introduced in 1994, in denominations of 1, 5, 10, and 50 centavos, and 1 real, with the addition of a 25 centavo piece soon after. All coins were struck in stainless steel; the original 1 real coins with dates from 1994-1997 have been withdrawn from circulation, but all others are still in use.

 

Ghosts and Lost Treasures: Spooky Stories of Cursed Coins

 

With the new Ghostbusters film coming to theaters this weekend, everyone is trading ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. Coin collectors should be listening. After all, stories of lost treasures and paranormal activity go back centuries. Almost every legend of buried coins comes with the requisite guardian specter or curse, put in place to prevent any upstart from stealing the wealth. Here are a few of our favorites.

 

Captain Kidd’s treasure on Charles Island, Connecticut
1280px-CharlesislandCharles Island is a small spot of land just off the shore of Connecticut, near the town of Milford. It’s been said to have been “thrice-cursed.” The first curse was set by the local Paugussett nation who believed it to be the home of sacred spirits; when European settlers defeated them, the chief proclaimed that any shelter built on the island would crumble (and indeed, no building has lasted long on its soil.) The legendary pirate, Captain Kidd, also cursed the spot during his final voyage in 1699 when he reportedly buried treasure there, insisting that anyone who disturbed the gold would die. The final curse is supposed to be from the Mexican Emperor Guatmozin, whose treasure was allegedly hidden on the island by sailors in 1721.
skull-476740_960_720Officially, no treasure has been found on Charles Island to date. But there are stories that say otherwise. Local tales recount the story of two treasure hunters who found an iron chest buried on the island in 1850. When they began to open the chest, a screaming, fiery skeleton descended from the sky, and a shower of blue flames erupted from the treasure pit. Naturally, the treasure hunters fled in terror; when they returned to the spot by day, their tools and the treasure pit had vanished. In some versions of the story, the two men spend their final days in an insane asylum; in others, they are beheaded by the spirits of the Paugussett nation. Whether any of it is true is a matter for conjecture, but even in the present day, visitors to the island report sightings of ghosts in the trees and disembodied voices.

 

 

The Treasure of Jean Lafitte
Anonymous_portrait_of_Jean_Lafitte,_early_19th_century,_Rosenberg_Library,_Galveston,_Texas.JPGPirate legends are a treasure trove of stories of headless ghosts and spectral ships; it’s hard to tell which stories are original and which have simply borrowed these common motifs. But one of the most common stories is the ghost of corsair captain Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was legendary for his exploits, and was condemned, pardoned, and condemned again by the United States government. He and his fleet helped save the city of New Orleans from British troops during the War of 1812, and though Lafitte operated as a man without a country, he had great respect for the new country. Lafitte’s ghost is a fairly common sight at his old blacksmith shop, which is now a bar. In many legends, ghosts are fine mists or shadowy shapes, and pirate ghosts are often said to be headless, but Lafitte has always been a full apparition, according to all accounts. He is always seen on the first floor, usually in the shadows, and never interacts with any visitor. When spotted, he looks like a normal human dressed in old sailor’s clothes, until he simply fades into the shadows.
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Also unlike most pirate ghosts, Lafitte has only been seen in his place of business, never near any of his treasure sites. One of the sites commonly thought to hold some of his riches is Fowler’s Bluff, Florida. Lafitte and other pirates were known to frequent the area, especially to bring their ships onto land and clean to hulls. No treasure of Lafitte’s has been recorded here, but stories persist of a man who left the Bluff in 1888 with unexplained riches. Some attempts at using ground-penetrating radar have revealed shapes that could be chests of gold doubloons. Perhaps some treasure chests remain to be found by future treasure hunters.

 

The Cahuenga Pass Treasure

1922_Cahuenga_Pass_HollywoodA large hoard of coins is reportedly buried near the Hollywood Bowl in southern California. This complex story starts in 1864, when four Mexican soldiers were sent to San Francisco with a load of coins and jewels to purchase munitions for the Mexican war (at the time, Mexican silver pesos were one of the most valued trade coins in the world.) One of the soldiers died during the voyage under suspicious circumstances, and his comrades buried their fortune for safe-keeping while they kept a watch for foreign agents.

 

However, the soldiers had been watched not by spies, but by a man named Diego Morena, who took the coins and made his way south to the mountains near Los Angeles, through the Cahuenga Pass. That night, he dreamed that he would die if he took the treasure into the city, so he buried it in the Pass. He went into town the next day, where he fell violently ill. He told a friend, Jesus Martinez, where the treasure was buried, before dying of his illness that night. Martinez and his stepson went to find the coins, but Martinez died of a heart attack as soon as they began to dig. The stepson died in a shootout 10 years later.
Hoard_of_ancient_gold_coinsPart of the treasure was uncovered by a Basque shepherd in 1885. The shepherd sewed the coins into his clothing for safekeeping and set off on a boat for Spain. As he stood looking towards the approaching country, he fell overboard and the weight of the gold in his clothes sunk him to the bottom of the sea.
The legend (and curse?) of the coin hoard continued into the twentieth century. Henry Jones, an oil expert, dug for the treasure in November of 1939, while a film crew documented the dig. Nothing but dirt was ever found, and Jones committed suicide over his failure. The coins have never been recovered.

 

The Folly Island Treasure

 

The ghost of Blackbeard the pirate has been seen out at Folly Island, South Carolina, many times, possibly connected with this spine-tingling tale regarding treasure on the island.

 

Civil_War_Battle_Scene_1887_William_T_Trego.pngDuring the Civil War, Union troops landed on Folly Island while preparing an assault on the nearby town of Charleston. Soldiers were sent around the island to ensure that all civilian residents had vacated the island; one young officer, reportedly named Yokum, came across an old black woman and a child living in a run-down shack. The woman refused to leave the house, as she had grown up in it, and began telling Yokum stories about the area. He wasn’t interested until the old woman mentioned treasure buried nearby.

 

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According to the old woman, pirates had buried six chests full of gold and silver coins (likely doubloons and pieces of eight) between two oak trees. After the chests were lowered into the hole, the pirate captain stabbed one of his crew and tossed the body into the hole. The pirates covered the pit and sailed away. The old woman insisted that the treasure was guarded by the ghost of the pirate buried with the gold.

 

 

moon-1275694_960_720.jpgYokum helped the old woman and the child off the island, then returned with his friend Hatcher to look for the treasure that night. As they dug, the tops of the trees began swaying as if in a high wind; the deeper the dug, the higher the wind rose, until the wind-blown sand began scratching their faces. Flashes of light began to appear, with greater frequency as the hole grew deeper. Finally there came a long flash, that made the night “bright as noon,” and Yokum and Hatcher saw that they were not alone. The dark form of a pirate stood behind them; the two men dropped their tools and escaped across the dunes, swearing never to tell anyone what had happened. The coins have never been found.

 

 

 

 

The Sensational Coins of Treasure Legends

Even though we don’t cut our coins up any more, the practice made an indelible cultural mark. Most of us still know the cost of a shave and a haircut is two bits (occasionally increased to six), and the piratical legend of “pieces of eight” still sounds like treasure. Pieces of eight, bits, and “cob” coins all have one thing in common: they could be subdivided when necessary by simply cutting them into pieces.

 

Pieces of Eight

7264793792_fd2a04aae4_oThe original silver peso could be cut into eight equal pieces each worth a single real. This made giving change easier in times of low circulation or when the coins were used in remote locations. Silver pesos (commonly called “Spanish dollars”) were one of the most widely-used coins international trade for centuries, due to their superior uniformity and milling standards. Some nations even countersigned the coin, legalizing it for use as local currency. Many coin denominations in Latin America used the silver peso as a base for their own currency, and the modern peso is still a common denomination in many of them. Over 20 nations still have a peso denomination, though the value has decreased over the centuries.

 

The pieces of eight of pirate legends refer more typically to the coins minted in the Americas and shipped to the Philippines aboard the Spanish treasure fleet. In the Philippines, these coins could be exchanged for Chinese goods, since Spanish silver was the only foreign currency accepted by the Chinese at the time. These coins, upon acceptance by Chinese merchants, would often be stamped with chop marks to indicate the coin had been valued correctly. (The later American trade dollars often ended up with chop marks, too. Read more here!)

 

A chest of these and other coins are rumored to lie buried under a quiet neighborhood in Philadelphia; a mysterious letter dated May 14, 1716 (verified as authentic) tells the recipient how to find a buried chest of “doubloons, pistoles, reales and pieces of eight.” Since the neighborhood has been built up over the centuries, it is impossible to access to spot where the chest is supposed to be buried. It might still wait to be discovered.

 

Doubloons

DoubloonAfter Austria introduced the Guldengroschen coin in 1486, other countries began creating their own specie (high purity) coins. The Spanish 8-real coin, the peso, was created in 1497; 40 years later, they began producing the gold escudo, worth 16 reales, or 2 pesos. A later coin, the legendary doubloon, was worth 2 escudos (or 4 pesos, or 32 reales). Since it is also divisible by 8, the doubloon is also a “pieces of eight” coin.

 

Spanish-American mints also produced gold escudos in denominations of one, two, four, and eight. The two escudo coins were known as “pistoles,” with the eight escudo piece being a “quadruple pistole” or sometimes a “double doubloon.” In time, it became known simply as the Spanish doubloon. Doubloons were currency in Spain as late as the mid-19th century. In 1849, Spain minted its last doubloons; however, several former colonies, such as Mexico and Peru, continued to mint them.

 

Cob Coins and Creating Currency

17th_Century_Spanish_Treasure_Silver_8_Reales_Cob_CoinIn the British colonies, the word “cob” often referred to Spanish-American coins in either gold or silver, which were crudely shaped during the early years of exploration in the New World (in contrast to the coins minted in Spain, which were much more uniform.) 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 Aztecsl; 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.

 

continental third dollarBritish 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.
600px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_01Shortly after its founding in 1788, the New South Wales colony in Australia faced a shortage of coins. Not only was the colony remote from Europe, but most coins left the colony aboard trading ships, in exchange for their valuable cargo. Governor Lachlan Macquarie found an innovative solution: he had the centers punched out of thousands of Spanish dollars which the British government had sent. The inner piece (also called the “dump”) was valued at 15 pence, while the outer circle (colloquially known as the “holey dollar,”) was valued at 5 shillings. Each 614px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_03section was overstamped with the name of the colony, the date, and the new value of the coin. This not only doubled the number of coins in circulation, but made it almost impossible for them to be taken out of the colonies, since other colonies and countries would not accept the “damaged” coins. The relief was short-lived; the Sterling Silver Money Act passed by Parliament in 1825 ended the use of this uniquely Aussie currency.

 

Cob coinage faded into obscurity as minting technology and security measures have improved, but these unique coins and pieces of coins form an indelible part of our history.

These Unforgettable Journeys Display the Best of Human Courage

Exploration has been a part of the human experience from the very beginning, and we have commemorated our journeys in every form of art imaginable. One of the most popular ways to memorialize our journeys has been on postage stamps. Here are a few of our favorites.

 

The 1930 Europe-Pan American Flight of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin

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The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was one of the most-traveled airships of all time. Built in Germany in 1926-1928, the commercial craft was named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, pioneer of German airships. During its 12 years of operations, it flew more than 1 million miles in 590 flights.

 

The Graf first visited South America in 1930, as one stop on a flight between Spain, Brazil, and the United States. The ship offered passenger service, as well as express freight and air mail between all four countries. The first such flight left from Friedrichshafen on the 18th of May, 1930, before stopping in Seville and subsequently departing Europe.

 

The LZ 127 docked at Campo do Jiquiá in Brazil, to the welcoming shouts of more than 15,000 onlookers. It proceeded to Rio de Janeiro, then flew to Lakehurst, New Jersey; after departing for Seville on June 2, it returned to Germany. Two years later, the Graf had an established Germany-Brazil passenger, mail, and freight service; this route was active from 1932 to 1937.

 

graf zepplinFor many of its journeys, including the Europe-Pan American flights, the Graf found its funding from franked stamps on souvenir mail. Anyone could buy a stamp with the Graf’s design issued by Spain, Brazil, and the United States, which would be good for mail to be sent on one or more parts of the Graf’s route. In the United States, these stamps were issued in three denominations: $0.65, $1.30, and $2.60. However, since the United States was caught in the Great Depression during this time, very few stamps sold at such high prices. 1,135,000 of the $0.65 stamps were printed, with only about 20,000 sold or otherwise distributed. The numbers for the pricier stamps are low, too; for the $1.30 stamp, 1,005,000 were printed with only 30,000 distributed. The most expensive stamp only sold 5,000 of its 1,070,000 print run.

 

The stamps were withdrawn from sale on June 30, and over 3 million unsold stamps were destroyed; this made the Graf Zeppelin issues the smallest of the United States Post Office Department issues of the twentieth century.

 

Despite the low sales of stamps in the US, the Graf proved the feasibility of pan-Atlantic airship service. It offered regular services between Germany and South America in the summers for five years. The increase in commercial airplane service, as well as the high cost of the gas used in the zeppelin, contributed to the decline of demand for airship services, and the Hindenburg disaster made such journeys seem unsafe to the general public.

 

The LZ 127 was grounded the day after the Hindenburg crashed, and removed from service after its arrival in Friedrichshafen on May 8, 1937. In mid June, the Graf was taken to Frankfurt on its final flight, deflated, and opened as a public museum. Attempts to revive the airship program failed due to tensions between the United States and Germany. On March 4, 1940, Air Minister Hermann Göring ordered the ship to be scrapped for salvage, and melted for reuse by the German military.

 
Antarctic Exploration

800px-Mt_Murphy,_Antarctica.jpgAntarctica has been a land of mystery for thousands of years, as early geographical theories relied on a large southern continent to “balance” the land mass of the known world. “Antarctic” was coined in the second century AD, though it was not until the Cape of Good Hope was rounded in the 15th century that it was revealed to be a continent unattached to any of the other known land masses. Explorer Captain Cook and his crew were the first modern Europeans to cross the Antarctic Circle, though they did not see the mainland.

 

In the 1800s, Russian and British crews made claims to be the first to catch sight of the ice surrounding the continent, but it is unclear who actually gets credit. It is thought that American seal hunter John Davis was probably the first to actually walk on the ice. During the early twentieth century, various expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole, only to end in disaster and loss of life. On December 14, 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the Pole, after an arduous race with Robert Scott of England. Scott reached the Pole 33 days after Amundsen, and all five members of his party died on the return journey.

 

48759-01__93433.1434408467.1200.1200Sir Douglas Mawson led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition between 1911-1914, focusing on the coastline between Mount Gauss and Cape Adare. The mission concentrated on mapping and surveying the land, and included discoveries such as Ninnis and Mertz glaciers, Queen Mary Land, and Commonwealth Bay. The Australian Antarctic Territory issued its first stamp in 1957.

 
The Journey to Space

600px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseThe greatest journey humanity has ever undertaken is the journey off our homeworld and into space. The 1960’s were characterized by an intense focus on human spaceflight, especially the race to land a human being on the moon. Russia and the United States both had scientific and political reasons for attempting this feat, but after a slow start, the United States quickly pulled ahead. On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 mission launched: it would be the first time human beings had left the orbit of the earth. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell (better known for his time on the Apollo 13 mission), and William Anders were the first human beings to see the entire planet from space, to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the first to witness an earthrise over the lunar surface. The photo of this event is one of the most famous and evocative photos in history.

 

Due to complications with the Lunar Module, the mission was refocused to go without the module, and to leave a few months earlier than originally scheduled. This placed a great deal of pressure on the astronauts as their training was suddenly intensified. The Apollo 8 mission was the first manned launch of the legendary Saturn V rocket as it blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Taking three days to reach the moon, the crew and craft orbited ten times; the crew took this opportunity to share a Christmas Eve broadcast, which was the most watched television broadcast of the time. Upon returning to Earth via splashdown in the Pacific on December 27, 1968, the three astronauts were named Time’s “Men of the Year.” The Apollo 8 mission was crucial to the success of the later moon landing missions.

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The moon race was of interest to the entire human race, not just the countries directly involved. This contemporary gold foil stamp from Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) shows the Apollo 8 command module, with a cratered lunar surface behind it.

 

Whether we are exploring the furthest reaches of our own planet, or trying to reach the stars, humanity loves to push ourselves further, and to document our journeys in whatever way we can. Whether it’s stamps, coins, fine art, or just graffiti, we know how to say “we were here!” with style.

 

Each of these stamps is available from our store. Please click the links to see more information or purchase!

How Mexico’s Remarkable Peso Revolutionized the World

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

 

In honor of the holiday, let’s take a moment to examine and celebrate Mexican coins.

 

Both pesos and dollars originated in the Spanish dollar of the 15th-19th centuries. The word “peso” was originally used to refer to pesos oro and pesos plata (gold and silver weights, respectively.) In fact, the literal translation of peso is “weight.”

 

7264793792_fd2a04aae4_o.jpgPeso was the original name of the legendary Spanish “pieces of eight” coins issued in Mexico, sometimes called Spanish dollars. Each peso was valued at 8 reales; the escudo coin was worth 16 reales. These coins were widely circulated in the Americas through the mid 1800’s; America accepted them as legal tender prior to the Coinage Act in 1857, and Canada did the same until 1854. The first American dollar coins were not minted until 1792, and their value was set to approximately match the Spanish dollar.

 

The first decimation of the peso occurred in 1863, with the issue of centavo coins, each valued at one hundredth of a peso. The first peso denomination coins were issued in 1866, though reales denominated coins were still issued until 1897.

Peso_Mexicano_1921

 

The gold content of the peso was cut nearly in half in 1905, but the silver content was unchanged until 1918, while other coins were debased. Silver coins, except for the 1 peso, were limited to token issues, and several varieties of centavos were issued in bronze, nickel, and other metals.

 

CaballitoOne of the most striking of Mexican coins was created during this period: the Caballito. It bore the Mexican coat of arms on the obverse with its now-familiar eagle and snake motif, with the legends, “Un Peso” and “Estados Unidos Mexicanos.” The reverse showed a woman on horseback reaching out a hand as if in proclamation, and the date. These stunning coins, minted in .903 silver, were minted from 1910 through 1914. After 1918, all silver coins declined in both weight and fineness, culminating in the last minting of silver 100-peso coins in 1977.

 

In 1993, a new currency was introduced: the nuevo peso. The new peso, written as N$ and designated MXN, equaled 1000 of the original MXP pesos. The Bank of Mexico began introducing bimetallic coins in 2003. There are 32 coins in this series: one for each Mexican state, and one for the Federal District. Each coin bears Mexico’s coat of arms on the obverse, with the state’s coat of arms on the reverse. They are rare in circulation, but remain a popular novelty coin. Collectors have been encouraged to acquire full sets, but as the coins are high in price, this has not been as successful as hoped. The coins also have a bullion version, with a gold outer ring instead of the aluminium bronze of the standard coins.

 

AUPeso.jpgMexican bullion coins are available in several weights, in both .999 fine silver and fine gold. On one side, a winged Victoria strides across a landscape, with the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl in the background. The coat of arms of Mexico is shown on the other side. Newer versions show Victoria at a different angle, and the Mexican coat of arms on the reverse is surrounded by other coats of arms from Mexican history.

 

Today, the peso is third most-traded currency from the Americas, the most traded Latin American currency, and the eighth most traded currency in the world. It served as the model for multiple world currencies, including the Straits dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan, largely due to the trade and influence of the Spanish empire. 19th century Siam briefly used the Mexican peso as legal tender, when an unexpected flood of foreign trade caught the government mints by surprise.

 

According to Collectors Weekly, “Of the coins from the early days of the Republica Mexicana, escudos and reales minted in the 1820s are in particularly high demand. […] Other Mexican coins of note include round lead centavos issued by the state of Durango in 1914 and rectangular copper Oaxacan centavos from 1915.”

 

Mexican coins are among the most popular in the world, and are an excellent starting point for beginners, as well as a good investment for more experienced collectors.

 

Yes, we sell Mexican coins, bullion, and currency! See our selection here.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

The English language can be confusing.  Certainly, many of our idioms have fallen behind the times.  Hold the phones – What phones?  Don’t have a cow! – Surely, I’ll pass.  Where did these phrases come from and why have they stuck around despite their falling out with modern technology and culture?

On my morning walk I heard someone mention that they had “heard it straight from the horse’s mouth”.  Well, unless his horse is Mr. Ed, it seems quite unlikely that the man and his horse had a chat over breakfast and coffee.  Who’s to say the horse’s information would even be slightly reliable; or more reliable than say, hearing something straight from a person’s mouth?

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The phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” has become an idiom.  An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.  What meaning do we deduct from this word cluster?

We take the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” to mean getting information from an authoritative or credible source.  It might seemingly indicate that horses know best, however the phrase has an unexpected origin.

One possible origin comes from buying and selling horses back before the invention of the automobile.  As a means of labor and transportation, horses were very valuable in American civilization.  When buying a horse it was very important to obtain information about the animal’s health history and extenuating attributes, similarly to the way someone today would want to know the details about a car for purchase.  Apparently an excellent way to gage a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth, literally getting the facts straight from the horse’s mouth despite seller chicanery.  In one of my personal favorites, ‘Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye discloses to a man that the allegedly six year old horse he was sold actually turned out to be twelve.  “It was twelve!  It was tweeeelve!” he shouts during the iconic opening scenes as the town sings of “traditions, traditions“!

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Another possible origin relates to horse racing.  When betting on a horse, gamblers would put their money behind someone “in the know” who possessed that golden tidbit of information.  How’d they bet on the winning horse?  Why, they heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!  The people who you’d imagine have the best conjectures about which horse might win are the trainers and stable boys.  So, to say that it was heard straight from the horse’s mouth humorously suggests that someone is a step ahead of even the inner circle of stable boys, hearing it from the horse himself.

Though you’d never guess that’s where a phrase we use all the time and understand the meaning of comes from, it seems to have stuck through the decades.  Though most of us don’t go around checking horses’ mouths to see if they’re a good purchase or spend our Sunday afternoons at the race track, you can be sure to trust it if you heard it from the horse’s mouth!