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Always, some new geekery


You know how you’re playing a Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons kind of computer game, and you buy some food, and it’s, like, five gold pieces? Congratulations! You’ve just paid seven million bucks for a turnip!

Making currency denominations match real life experience was a recurring problem since the Middle Ages, at least. A gold piece was more than a peasant was likely to earn in a lifetime. A copper piece more than a week’s wages. So how the hell was the poor bastard supposed to buy a bowl of soup?

The value of a coin was wedded to the value of the metal it was made from until — well, until we were kids. Remember getting a silver dime or quarter in your change? Early coins were often scored with a cross, so they could be cut into quarters and the quarters spent separately. Copper coins were of the least value, and still people shaved lumps off them and melted them down to make counterfeits.

And still official government coins were in very short supply. Lack of coins in the lowest denominations became an acute problem in the middle 18th C, when more and more people were leaving the land to work in town and couldn’t be paid their wages in pig faces and corn shucks. By 1786, two-thirds of the coins in circulation were fake, and the Royal Mint responded by…wait, shutting itself down? The government refused to strike any copper coins at all in their own right for 48 years, from 1773 until 1821.

But capitalism finds a way. In 1768, one of the largest veins of copper in the world was found in Parys Mountain, Wales. Within twenty years — having failed to sell their anti-counterfeit coin ideas to the government — the Parys Mine Company was making and minting their own copper half pennies to pay their workers. These weren’t regarded as fake anything, as they didn’t pretend to be government issued and were valued based on the weight of the metal. Within a few years, thousands of such half pennies were designed and circulated by individuals, companies, towns, organizations, taking the heat off government.

They were instant collectibles — which explains why there are still so many to be had today in excellent condition. Because they were privately made, the designs range from beautiful to political to goofy. One of the very first collectors and cataloguers was a man named James Conder (1761–1823), hence halfpenny tokens are called Conder Tokens (often misspelled “Condor” on eBay, be advised). By the early 19th C, the government got back in the coin business and outlawed private tokens. The vast majority of private halfpennies bear a date in the 1790s.

Do I collect Conder Tokens? Um, kind of. I collect pictures of the ones I like from eBay. The one at top was designed by the Oddfellows (and it can be yours for a newly discounted price of £42.49!). Many can be had for much less, though, and I’m sorely tempted when local coins come up for sale.

Whenever I think I have discovered all the geekery there is…

September 10, 2015 — 9:44 pm
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