Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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U.S. coinage shaped by war: The Revolution
The Continental Currency dollar, designed by Benjamin Franklin, bears the names of all 13 rebelling colonies and the fateful date 1776.
In the depths of war, legends on America’s coinage gave substance to our aspirations, and the metals used reflected the exigencies of battle.
Coins celebrated the unity of the 13 original states during the Revolution, glorified God during the Civil War, celebrated peace after World War I and honored those unfortunate soldiers who died in the jungles of Vietnam.
During the Civil War and again during WWII, the Mint tried new metals to replace those hoarded at home and needed for battle abroad.
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Over five weeks, we'll look at the way war shaped our coinage.
You can’t get much more American than Continental Currency dollars.
The coins were designed by Benjamin Franklin, have the names of all 13 rebelling colonies and bear the fateful date 1776.
The coins, basically a larger version of the 1787 Fugio cents, feature a chain of 13 links on the reverse, each inscribed with the name of a breakaway colony. The chain surrounds the statement AMERICAN CONGRESS / WE ARE ONE. The obverse shows a sundial and the legend MIND YOUR BUSINESS/FUGIO. The words CONTINENTAL CURRENCY 1776 surround the sundial.
Some varieties also have the engraver’s initials: E.G., widely believed to be New York silversmith Elisha Gallaudet.
The coin is known from four silver pieces and a handful of pewter and brass examples.
In a 2014 sale of one of the silver coins, the Heritage Auctions catalog tells the story of the pieces. “ Eric P. Newman, Don Taxay, Walter Breen, Philip Mossman, and Michael Hodder spent many years researching the Continental Currency coinage, mesmerized by its mysterious origins. No authorization for the production of the Continental Currency coinage has come to light, but it is probable that the coins were intended to take the place of the dollar-denominated paper currency issued by the Continental Congress in the latter part of 1776. The four resolutions from May 10, 1775 to May 9, 1776 provided for the issue of paper money in various denominations, including the one dollar bill. The six resolutions of July 22, 1776 through September 26, 1778 omitted the one dollar denomination. Thus, it is logical to conclude the pewter pieces were intended as a substitute for the paper dollars in those issues. The coins had minimal intrinsic value, and like the paper bills they replaced, were valued according to the public’s confidence in Congress, who guaranteed their value at one dollar each.”
That coin, graded MS-63 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., sold for $1.4 million. Beat up pewter examples can sometimes be had for $10,000.
Paper Continental Currency, some bearing the same designs, is much cheaper. Congress authorized nearly $250 million in paper Continental Currency during the Revolution. At the end of the war, it was all but worthless, giving rise to the phrase, “Not worth a Continental.” Well-worn bills can frequently be found for just a few dollars each.