Colonial America column from Dec. 26, 2016, issue of
The half cent was a late addition into Thomas Jefferson’s decimal
plan of cents, dollars, and eagles. Jefferson supposed that a cent
would be of low enough value to suffice most small transactions.
Despite his belief, Jefferson left the door open for something
smaller, taking a cue from the coins then in circulation. Writing in
1784, Jefferson said “it will probably be the half of the copper I
promise, that is to say 5/1000 or .005 of a dollar, this being very
nearly the farthing of England.” Just as our dollar was patterned
after the Spanish milled dollar or 8-real coin, the mother of the
“Little Half Sisters” was the farthing.
Named for their value of four to a penny — thus a “fourthing” —
farthings were imported to American shores for centuries but were
never struck here. The only entry in the Colonial coin canon for a
farthing is the so-called Pitt farthing, a rare smaller-sized version
of the circa 1766 Pitt token, sometimes called a Pitt halfpenny though
neither size version was seemingly intended to circulate as money.
Connect with Coin World:
Sign up for our free eNewsletter
Follow us on Twitter
Despite their absence from A Guide Book of United States
Coins, the story of farthings in America is nearly as old as
America itself. Tiny Harrington farthings, struck in England about
1613, have been found in Jamestown and at nearby Wolstenholme Towne,
the subject of a popular book called Martin’s Hundred by Ivor
Noël Hume. Archaeological digs led by Hume found a Harrington farthing
in a soil strata dating to before the destruction of the town by
natives in 1622, making it one of the earliest known deposits of an
English coin in American soil.
Irish farthings of Queen Elizabeth I, dated 1601 and 1602, have also
been found at Jamestown, and other 17th century farthing types have
been recovered at sites up and down the Eastern seaboard. Archaeology
and metal detector finds also show that farthings depicting all three
King Georges were commonplace in American circulation.
American ingenuity was sometimes put to work when a farthing’s
change was needed. Halfpence, American state coppers, and similar
coppers survive that were cut in half to make change, producing a
truly “American” farthing.
In 1750, the ship Mermaid delivered hundreds of thousands of
farthings (and even more halfpence) dated 1749 to Boston for
circulation in America. While high grade pieces are elusive,
circulated 1749 farthings are easy to find, making them an ideal type
coin to showcase the farthing denomination in an American collection.