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Pieces of Eight

"Pieces of Eight" (reproduction)
Reproduction of a 1740 Mexican milled dollar (eight reales).

Check your pockets or purse. Do you have any coins? In modern America, we head to the store with coins, paper currency, and credit cards in our pockets. Just like today, people in the eighteenth century used both cash and credit to obtain the goods and services they needed and wanted. However, the coins and paper currency they used and the way they used credit were different in several ways.

The coin you see here is a replica of a Spanish coin used in the American colonies in the eighteenth century. Very few coins were minted in the British American colonies. Colonial North American commerce was conducted with foreign coins, and there are several good reasons for that practice. First, there were no gold or silver mines in British North America. Second, Great Britain itself had limited sources of precious metals. Coins came from the major gold and silver producing regions and the great trading nations. The most commonly used coins were from Spanish territories. Other common coins came from Spain itself, the Netherlands, France, and a few from England. Many of these coins reached America through trade with other nations' colonies in the Caribbean. Prevailing mercantile theory and the resulting laws attempted to steer the flow of precious metals and coins into Great Britain, rather than the colonies. Hence, coins were very valuable and, in some portions of the British North American colonies, rare.

The Spanish influence on the American monetary system is still evident today. The one ounce silver coin was eight reales. This "piece of eight" could be fractioned into halves (four reales) or quarters (two reales) much as we do with modern dollars. The modern stock market also operates in eighths of dollars.

Coins also provide important information about technology (mining, metallurgy, and shipping), trade and trade patterns, art and symbolism, rulers and political systems, and mediums of exchange.

Teaching Points

  • Because they were bound by England's rules for trade and money, American colonists used coins from many different countries. The most common currency in Virginia, however, was English pounds, shillings, and pence.

    "Coinage," vol. 8, plate 18 in Dennis Diderot, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1768. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
    "Coinage," vol. 8, plate 18 in Dennis Diderot, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1768. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


  • In the eighteenth century, the value of a coin was not determined by its face value, but by its weight in gold or silver.

    Weighing coins on a coin scale.


  • Most business could be handled by using coins. Sometimes, though, a coin was cut into smaller pieces to be used as payment or change, as needed.
  • Coins were sometimes milled, or their edges marked with lines, like our modern-day quarters, to discourage people from shaving minute amounts of metal from the edges. Shaved coins had less metal and, therefore, less value.

    Mexican milled dollar, 1740. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Gift of the Lassers.


  • Colonial merchants and tradespeople kep account books (ledgers) showing dates, goods/services purchased, and amounts of money owed and by whom (debts).
  • Written notes were also used for business transactions. Since Virginia's economy was based on growing and selling tobacco as a cash crop (tobacco-based economy), one of the mosted commonly used was the tobacco note.

    Reproduction of a tobacco note.


  • Paper currency was also used in the colonies. In the 1770s, each colony issued its own currency and it was up to shopkeepers and individuals whether or not they would accept paper currency as payment.

    Five-dollar Virginia paper currency, May 6, 1776. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Gift of the Lassers.
    Five-dollar Virginia paper currency, May 6, 1776.
    Gift of the Lassers. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


To explore these images and concepts with students, see the Teaching Strategies section of this month's newsletter.

Click here to see the entire glossary of terms relating to eighteenth-century colonial economy.


This article was written by Martha Berner, retired elementary school teacher, San Diego, CA, and Colonial Williamsburg staff.

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