Monday, May 11, 2009

Where the Dollar Began

May 11, 2009
Posted by John Dale

According to Wikipedia, today it is a small settlement in the Czech Republic, population around 3,500 residents as of 2006. From the early 1500s through the late 19th century, however, the town named for Bohemia’s St. Joachim’s Valley, or Joachimsthal in German, was a center of silver mining and minting for Europe. As recounted in various sources, including the Guide Book of United States Coins (also known as the Red Book and a U.S. coin collector essential), the term for the large silver coins struck at the mint in Joachimsthal was Joachimsthaler, a name later shortened to thaler as use of the term spread beyond Bohemia.

A derivative of thaler is the word “dollar,” and the Spanish dollars (known more popularly as pieces-of-eight) that made up much of the circulating coinage of the American colonies directly influenced the choice of the word “dollar,” both for Revolution-era money such as the Continental currency and the federal coinage as authorized in 1792. It was not until two years later, however, that the dollar as a denomination would be struck in silver. Just 2,000 pieces were struck on a single pair of dies, with all bullion supplied by the Mint Director, David Rittenhouse, and after the culling of specimens deemed unacceptable, the remaining coins – all 1,758 of them – were paid back to Mr. Rittenhouse.

Since coinage did not resume until the next year, those 1,758 coins were the only 1794 silver dollars produced, and the vast majority of those have been lost to time. Today, the 1794 dollar is very scarce in any grade, with even generous estimates of the number of survivors topping out at 10% of the mintage. As a result, the opportunity to examine (or better yet, purchase) a 1794 dollar, such as the one coming up in the May Long Beach auction, should not be missed.

As expected for a coin that is more than two centuries old, this 1794 dollar is not absolutely pristine; it shows light to moderate wear across the flowing-hair portrait of Liberty and the thin eagle within its wreath (though the apparent loss of detail around the rims comes from striking problems and not circulation). In addition, NCS notes a repair on the coin, though said repair is skillfully done and well-hidden. Neither the wear nor the repair affects this memorable coin’s historic aura, its enduring connection to the early days of U.S. coinage. After the bidding has ended, perhaps this 1794 dollar’s new owner will sit with the coin, examine it, and let it take him or her back to where the dollar began.

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-John Dale Beety

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