Dr. Sol Taylor

Massachusetts Silver Coinage, 1652-1682

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, July 7, 2007

    n the Colonial period of the mid-17th Century, local colonies in North America were strapped for circulating coinage. The mixture of foreign coinage caused various conversion tables to be used to fathom values in British currency, Spanish-American values, French and Dutch coinage and less common German and eastern European issues. Indian wampum (bead money) was the standard prior to the Massachusetts coinage issues.
    The first authorized colonial coinage, spurred by a lack of support from England, was minted in Massachusetts. The General Court in 1652 commissioned John Hull of Boston to mint silver coins of 3d, 6d and 1 shilling. Hullís fee was one shilling for every 20 shillings of new coinage minted. The designs were crude, round (but rarely fully round) silver disks stamped in one corner with the monogram "NE" for New England and on the opposite side with the Roman numerals III, VI or XII, indicating the number of pence of each pieceís value.
    These crude pieces circulated in the Boston area and were not widely accepted, due to their simplistic format. From the surviving specimens — all are rare — it is evident that the edges were often clipped, shaved or filed down as a means of "short changing" the coin. In addition, many counterfeit pieces showed up in change.
    In 1653, a new design known as the "Willow Tree" coinage was minted. The handmade dies and presses produced a coin with images on both sides and a scrawny tree as the central design. Most pieces were lacking in details, as the planchets varied in their roundness. Three denominations were made as before: 3d, 6d and 1 shilling. All are rare to very rare, with only three of the 3d pieces known.
    In 1660, the design was modified to the "Oak Tree" pattern, and a 2d piece was added to the series. These pieces circulated for several years along the Atlantic coast and rarely showed up outside the coastal areas. All bore the date 1652 — the original date of authorization for Massachusetts coinage. These pieces are scarce to rare today, with values ranging from $575 in Good condition to $10,000 in Almost Uncirculated.
    The final issues dated 1652 were the best known of the Massachusetts coins: the Pine Tree coinage of 1667-82. The major change was in more rounded planchets, the various die varieties and the details of the strikings. These are scarce to rare, depending on condition.
    As a superstition, many of these silver pieces were bent and then straightened out. It was thought by some that bending the coin would ward off evil spirits. Many were also holed and worn as a pendant for similar reasons.
    A nice, low-grade shilling catalogs for $600, while an Extra Fine example runs from $7,500 to $12,500, depending on the variety.
    The Pine Tree pieces are the most common of the Massachusetts colonial coinage. Since all bore the date of 1652 — the Cromwell period in British history — they were never granted authority from the Crown.
    Massacusetts coinage was halted in 1682, and the proposal to renew silver coinage was rejected by the General Court in 1686. It was several decades later when copper tokens and coinage of other colonies started to circulate among the eastern colonies.
    The Pine Tree style was copied on various tokens and medals, including the standard for the New England Numismatic Association. In 1930, souvenir Pine Tree shilling medals were struck bearing the pine tree image on one side and John Hull on the other.
    Collectors are cautioned to demand warranties when buying any of these colonial pieces, since not only are there counterfeits that were made back in the 17th Century, but modern silver replicas, as well.
    Generally, genuine coins show up at major auctions or sanctioned estate sales, not on bid boards or garage sales or in swap meets.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.