USA Coin Album: America's Coinage Abroad, Part Two

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 5/6/2010

There's been little research done on the circulation of USA coins in other countries, so David W. Lange casts some light on this still-intriguing topic. Read on for part two.

Latin America has been another destination for many United States coins. In 1835 the nation of Venezuela received permission to purchase and import 1.1 million copper cents from the Philadelphia Mint, though no documentation has been found proving this exchange was made. Researcher John Wright has observed, however, that half of the 18 known die marriages of 1835-dated cents account for more than 90% of the coins seen. The implication is that the other varieties were the ones shipped to Venezuela and thus mostly lost to American collectors.

The shipment of American coins to Latin America was sporadic but widespread, as these nations, particularly the smaller ones, seldom had mints of their own. After 1874, the US Mint was permitted to strike coins for other countries using their own designs, and this soon became the rule. But until that time it was common for USA issues to circulate alongside a mix of other foreign issues and native coinages. This trend seems to have accelerated during the American Civil War, just as it did in Canada. With the circulation of silver coins halted in most of the United States during the years 1862–75 due to inflated federal paper money, much of the existing stock of USA coins was diverted to Latin America.

Walter Breen described a large quantity of half dollars dated 1859–65, mostly San Francisco Mint products, attributed to the “Guatemala Hoard.” These are coins said to have returned to the USA around 1956. Though often showing little or no wear, most are either darkly toned or, more often, badly cleaned to remove such toning. I could find no further reference to this hoard, but there is another published account of 14 million half dollar coins being repatriated from Honduras in or shortly after 1951. These were shipped to the Philadelphia Mint and presumably melted. It’s also possible that these are one and the same story.

Another curious entry was published in 1900 in the Havana Post: “Americans who visit the interior of Cuba are surprised beyond measure when they are given change from small purchases in cafes. The old American half dime, which is no more in circulation in the United States, is used in the interior towns of Cuba, where it passes for two and a half cents.” This discount from face value was explained by the fact that these coins had been pierced for suspension. The half dime coinage of 1862–73, a period when silver coins were not circulating in most of the USA, was largely fashioned into jewelry, this being particularly true of the San Francisco Mint issues. Thus mutilated, they seem to have found a second life circulating in Cuba and other parts of Latin America.

About the same time that tourists were discovering obsolete half dimes in the Caribbean, the San Francisco Mint was shipping millions of dimes, quarters and halves to the Philippine Islands. Acquired by the USA from Spain in the 1899 Treaty of Paris, these islands lacked a reliable coinage of their own, so fractional silver pieces dated 1898-S, 1899-S and 1900-S were shipped there in large numbers. Not suited to the local economy, these coins circulated a very short time before being replaced with a unique series based on a Philippine peso equivalent to 50 cents USA. The S-Mint Barber silver coins were simply hoarded as a store of silver by the Filipinos until being mostly repatriated after 1960. By then the coins, though unworn or just lightly worn, had turned very dark in the harsh climate of the Philippines. Seen today, they typically are harshly cleaned though still retain rich detail.

The United States actually flirted with an international coinage in the 1870s. The creation of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865 provided the impetus for this move, and one small step in that direction was the slight weight increase made to our fractional silver in 1873 so that their weights could be expressed in more even Metric figures. This pointless gesture was followed by adoption of the 20-cent piece in 1875. Though there were additional reasons for its creation, it did nearly conform in weight and value to the French franc, the Italian lira and the Greek drachma. The creation of pattern four dollar pieces and Metric silver dollars in 1879–80 was also intended as a bid toward an internationally exchangeable currency, but ultimately the whole plan came to nothing. The falling price of silver as measured in gold quickly rendered such proposals obsolete. Americans, in any case, were culturally averse to getting too involved in European matters.

While the foreign circulation of United States coinage is mostly a thing of the past, one notable exception survives. Indeed, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. When introduced in 2000, the brass-clad Sacagawea dollar made a big thud in domestic circulation for the evergreen reason that Congress refuses to discontinue competing paper dollars. Over the next two years, however, some 500 million of these coins were exported to Ecuador, where they have found ready acceptance and are now encountered with substantial wear. This nation adopted the USA dollar as its official currency in 2000, following unstable values for its former currency unit, the sucre. Sacagawea dollars are the most popular coins in local circulation, where they are augmented by fractional coins of native design. The Indian portrait is compatible culturally, as well, but it will be interesting to see whether any of our President dollars make their way there!

David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.