American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Moving West: 19th-Century America


The United States began the 19th century as a minor power struggling to claim its place next to the European nations, but ended the century on the brink of economic and political greatness. The country’s coins reflect its growing confidence and also illustrate its territorial and economic expansion.

Early in the century, the U.S. Mint was unable to meet the needs of the economy, so foreign coins remained legal tender and private tokens continued to be common. The discovery of gold in the southeast in the 1830s and in California in 1848 helped ease this problem. The establishment of branch mints, including those at New Orleans and San Francisco, also made the distribution of money more efficient, as did the authorization of a gold 20-dollar "double eagle" in 1849. Finally, in 1857, Congress mandated that only U.S. coins were to be legal tender for all transactions.

In the second half of the century, the role of the United States in the international economy continued to grow. The desire to facilitate trans-Pacific exchange lay behind the creation of the trade dollar, a silver coin containing slightly more silver than a standard U.S. dollar. Unfortunately, the two denominations were too similar and the resulting confusion led to the trade dollar being officially demonetized. The mint also produced unusual denominations, such as 3-cent and 20-cent coins, for domestic circulation, but none lasted very long. By the end of the century, cents, 5-cent "nickels," dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars were the common coins—and these are all still struck today.