World Coins

This Day in History: April 1

The town of Potosi in modern-day Bolivia was founded on April 1, 1545, and became a center of mining silver, which was used to create millions of Spanish colonial coins like the 1577 to 1585 silver 8-real coin shown here.

Coin images courtesy of Cayon.

The story of exploration is often one entwined with exploitation, and thus is the story of the mining town of Potosi, in modern-day Bolivia.

The town was founded April 1, 1545, after the discovery of major silver deposits in the area. 

Over the course of two centuries, hundreds of millions of pesos’ worth of silver was mined in Potosi (mostly by forced labor), much of it coined at the local mint into currency for the Spanish Empire. The quinto, or a fifth of the silver, was sent back to Spain to fuel that country's economy, the rest fulfilling its role as money for locals and outsiders alike.

The Potosi Mint struck silver cob coins from 1574 through 1773, “the longest run of cobs from any Spanish American mint,” according to The Practical Book of Cobs by Daniel Sedwick and Frank Sedwick. 

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Cobs are crude coins struck from silver or gold and take their name from the Spanish phrase “cabo de barra,” translated as “end of a bar,” which explains how the cobs were made.

Pieces were cut off the end of a refined bar and then struck, but because of their irregular shape and thickness, the planchets often feature incomplete designs and are “aesthetically abominable,” according to Richard Doty in The MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics

“But aesthetics were of no matter: speed was,” he wrote.

Quality suffered further after 1600, Doty said, because Spain was clinging to its status as a world power, and quantity, not quality, of money became paramount, even for those struck in Spain using bars that had been shipped back. 

The vast expanse of the Spanish Empire, and the vast number of coins produced at Spanish colonial mints, means the coins are readily available today. (Except, that is, gold cobs of Potosi, since none were ever made there.) 

Cob production yielded to machine struck round coins, with steam power finally coming to a newly built mint in Potosi in 1767. 

The mint at Potosi struck its final coins in 1953, but millions of coins remain as artifacts of Potosi’s importance as a center for silver mining in colonial Spain. 

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