American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Europe in Transformation: The 17th Century


By the early 1600s, the rich mines of Potosí, Bolivia, had reached their highest output and began to slowly decline. In addition, inflation and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) reduced the production of smaller silver coins. As a result, copper coins became more common. The kings of Sweden took the unusual measure of authorizing the production of large copper plates for exchange. Such plate money was deposited in banks and people transacted business by using paper bills issued by the bank and backed by the plate's monetary value. Thus, Sweden was the first European country to issue official paper money (see case 20).

In the 17th century, coins—in particular, small change—were increasingly used for everyday purchases. Traveling and trading in the many small principalities in Europe was not easy as each state used different coins that were issued on a variety of weight standards. Merchants required scales to calculate exchanges between all the different currencies.

The silver thaler and related silver coinages continued to be the mainstay of European commerce. Also widespread in this period were Spanish 8 reales (the famous "pieces of eight" of pirate lore), produced from New World silver. Coin production became increasingly mechanized, and new techniques were applied to coin production. The screw-press, which was used until the 19th century, regularized the appearance of these coins.