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Big bucks and silver dollars March 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to resume my discussion of dollars and sense. Ever wonder why we call a dollar a buck? I did, too. So let’s put on our deerstalker caps and follow the money trail to find some answers. As Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot!

Back in Colonial times, America’s money was a mess. The colonies all minted their own money, merchants minted coin-like tokens with monetary value, and everybody used all types and stripes of foreign coinage right alongside the local versions. Lots of people didn’t have money at all, and bartered goods that they raised or made in exchange for goods they needed. (Still a great idea, in my opinion.)

With all this money madness, one coin emerged as the “gold standard” (in quotes because it was actually a silver coin) of reliability. Everyone recognized it, and everyone acknowledged its value. It became the most popular coin in the Colonies. The Susan B. Anthony dollar? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) No: the Spanish dollar.

The so-called Spanish dollar, or 8-reales (“royals”) piece, was a hefty silver dollar minted all over the Spanish colonies of Central and South America as well as in Spain. In Colonial times, the guy on the front was usually King Carlos IV (on the coin, Carolus IIII), though his predecessor Carlos III also showed up regularly. In a time when a dollar was a lot of money, these big coins were often broken up into smaller denominations–into fourths, or quarters (yes, that’s where our quarter comes from), or into eighths (and if you’re reminded of the infamous piratical “pieces of eight,” yup, these were the ones they meant).

Okay, where does the buck come in? Deer meat was pretty popular on Colonial backwoods tables, and deer hides commanded a good price in trade. In fact, a buck’s hide was valued at–you guessed it, a Spanish dollar! To this day, the word buck has lingered in our collective vocabulary as a synonym for dollar. I discovered this intriguing fact just last week while reading Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone (called simply Boone: A Biography). Mr. Morgan’s knowledge of the period must be encyclopedic indeed. Mystery solved!

But wait, you say. Where does the word dollar come from, anyway? That’s a little easier to answer. Some of the first countries to produce big, standardized silver coins were the German States. They made gorgeous coins called thalers that collectors like our friend Ben lust after to this day. In much of Germany, the thaler was pronounced like “taller.” But in low German, it was pronounced like–you guessed it again–“dollar.”

Just goes to show that, like us, American coinage has a very diverse and international background. And in case you were wondering, the Spanish dollar remained legal tender in the U.S. until 1857, when Congress insisted that everybody use U.S.-minted coinage. (Hey–where does that phrase “legal tender” come from, anyway? That’s a good topic for a future post…)        



1. Jason Slone - May 1, 2008

Wow, thats probably the coolest thing I have read in a while. I love the whole colonial era and the whole barter process. Very good article

Thanks, Jason! And I agree–the Colonial era’s amazing and we could all learn a lot from it, including the whole barter mindset, in these tough times!

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