Though the earliest American coins, the silver pieces struck in
Boston in the 17th century, have distinctive motifs that were designed
just for use in Massachusetts, their basic layout owes a lot to
English contemporaries, with beaded borders around peripheral legends
that surround central design elements.
Not only are the shilling, sixpence, and threepence denominations
the same as their English ancestors, but even the way those
denominations are expressed are the same. Look for bold Roman numerals
on both the small silver coins of Massachusetts and those struck in
mid-17th century England, a shorthand that was very different from the
way other contemporary coins showed value.
The Lord Baltimore silver coins, struck about the
same time, owe their look to the hammered silver coins of Charles I in
even more direct similitude.
The most common progenitor of early American coins is the English
halfpenny, easily the most common copper coin in colonial America.
While Machin’s Mills counterfeit halfpence were clearly inspired by
their genuine counterparts, so too were the coppers of Connecticut,
most coppers struck for Vermont, and even many of the Washington
coppers like the Military Bust types and the rare NON VI VIRTUTE VICI
pieces. All of these feature a truncated bust in profile on the
obverse, surrounded by identifying legends, and a seated allegorical
figure on the reverse atop a date in the exergue. George II halfpence,
struck from 1729 until 1754, depict the king facing left, just like
most Connecticut coppers. The copycatting is not accidental: Worn
George II coppers dominated American small change, and it was vital
that the new coppers blend in if their minters were to make a profit
on their production.
Sometimes a design lived long enough to be copied more than once.
The Nova Constellatio patterns of 1783 were copied
in 1785, when the far more common Nova Constellatio coppers were
struck. The Nova Constellatio coppers in turn inspired the reverse of
the Vermont Landscape coppers, which also used the radiant all-seeing
Similarly, Ben Franklin’s design for 1776 Continental Currency
issues made it not only onto the 1776 Continental dollar, but was revived for the
1787 Fugio coppers. It was even featured on 1781
Vermont paper money, in somewhat altered form, making the point that
the would-be 14th state has been omitted from the ring of 13.
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