In early modern Europe, when a coin’s value was based directly on its precious metal content, creating small change was no easy feat. Under Elizabeth I, a penny was the smallest coin that could be issued, but everyday commercial goods often cost less than a penny. Local merchants therefore created their own “change” in the form of lead, tin, copper, and even leather tokens. The value of these tokens was not based on their inherent composition, but rather on the public’s faith that local merchants would accept them for payment. Use of trade tokens was prohibited by King James in 1613 but reintroduced at the start of the Cromwellian era around 1648. Finally, in 1672 King Charles demonetized trade tokens and issued the first royal copper halfpenny and farthing.
The original silver half penny was minted between 1607-1609 and was the smallest precious metal coin ever recovered in an American archaeological site. It was also one of the first coins found during the Jamestown excavations. Click here to learn more about the other exchange items in our collection.
Like the inspiration, this charm measures approximately 3/8″ (~10mm) in diameter. One side of the half penny depicts a rose to represent England, while the other side depicts a thistle, representing Scotland.