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November 14, 2006

"Pounds, Pence and Pistareens" explores colonial cash, currency

A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum provides museum guests a new understanding of money as it was used in Great Britain’s North American colonies.

“Pounds, Pence & Pistareens: The Coins and Currency of Colonial America” introduces guests to the myriad types of money found in the pockets and purses of our colonial ancestors.

The exhibit is one of three new exhibitions opening Dec. 16 as the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum re-opens following replacement of the fire safety system.

Most of the coins in use throughout the colonies were foreign in origin, and were made of metals ranging from pewter to pure gold. The exhibition’s intriguing array bears diverse images – from wild hogs and elephants to native American trees and lions. As guests learn about cobs, pistareens, farthings, pieces of eight and gold doubloons, they also find that paper money used in the colonies came in various shapes, sizes, denominations and colors.

“The exhibition tells the story of money from 1607 through the American Revolution,” said Erik Goldstein, curator of mechanical arts and numismatics. “Money is one of a handful of things we have in common with our 18th-century ancestors, and there is a wealth of misunderstanding about money of the period. The pistareen -- a common Spanish silver coin worth two reales – was used very heavily in 18th-century Williamsburg. The specimen in the exhibit was unearthed by archaeologists at the James Anderson Blacksmith Shop.”

Using hundreds of examples of the rare and the common, Goldstein has assembled an exhibition that includes the ubiquitous English half-penny and one of the rarest, a 1774 Virginia shilling – one of only five known to exist. The exhibition includes the earliest coin made in the British colonies. Struck in Boston in 1652, the New England Shilling joins hundreds of examples of paper money on display.

The exhibition highlights the generosity of Joseph R. and Ruth P. Lasser of New York, who have amassed a collection of several thousand pieces, most of which are now in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, and are being exhibited here for the first time.

Entrance to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is through the Public Hospital of 1773 on Francis St. between Nassau and South Henry Sts. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission, a separated Museums admission ticket or Annual Museums Pass.

For more information or reservations, call toll-free 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg on the Internet at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281