Money of America – A Brief History of 19th Century Commerce


It must have been very confusing for merchants to make change before and during the Civil War. Money, in that era, was a hodge podge of currency from all over the world. Spain, Mexico, Russia, along with South America, France and the Netherlands all had money in the mix. Add to that the American silver dollars, and the English shilling and you have a money exchange nightmare.

Money Made From Gold

Most people interested in currency are aware of the $10 gold piece known as the Eagle. It was first minted in 1797. The coin was discontinued in 1804, but struck again in 1838 through 1907. The Double Eagle was a $20 dollar gold piece in circulation from 1849 to 1907. A Half-Eagle was a $5 gold coin which became very unpopular because it featured the profile of a Native American woman.

The $1 gold coin was very small and easily lost. The Dutch had gold coins that was referred to as ‘shiners.’ The slug, a $50 dollar gold piece was struck for less than a year from 1851 to 1852 and used primarily in California.

Money Made From Silver

Silver dollars, half dollars and quarters were all used during this period in history. There was also 8th and 16th silver coins that were minted in South America and Mexico. A ‘bit’ was about 1/8th of a dollar and was known by several names. It was the Spanish reale, the New England ninepence, a shilling in New York and a levy or elevenpence in Pennsylvania.

Two bits was recognized as a quarter of a dollar and that term is still used today. Other silver money included the nickel, the dime and the half-dime which was very small. A coin known as the three-cent piece was first minted in 1851 and taken out of circulation in 1873.

Money Made From Cooper and Bronze

Small change money was generally referred to as ‘coppers’. There was even a worthless coin known as a Bungtown Copper. People tired to pass them off as real currency. ‘Hard Times Tokens’ or ‘Copperheads’ were broadly used during the Civil War when money was being hoarded by both the North and the South.

A large copper token, called ‘Hard Times’ was manufactured in lieu of real money. Thousands of such tokens were circulated in the Confederate States during the Civil War. They were virtually worthless but merchants had no choice but to take them. Other copper coins minted during this time were the large cent and the two-cent piece.

Paper Money

Paper money or ‘greenbacks’ were used in the 19th century along with Confederate money, National Bank Notes, Shinplasters (legal tender that could go as low as five cents in denomination), State Bank Notes and United States Notes.

Barter and Trade in Rural Areas

A lot of the population in this era didn’t have access to any kind of currency and relied on the barter and trade method to obtain what they needed. People paid their bills in services, produce, animals or anything they possessed.


The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800’s, Marc McCutcheon, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1993