Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (2022)

(c) copyright 1986 byChicago Coin Club

Each day of the year millions of coins change hands. This isdone casually, as a matter of course, without thought or evenconsideration of the fact that the name of a coin has a veryinteresting history. One such denomination is the PESO which hasbeen used and is still being used in several countries includingMexico.

The Peso, basis of the Mexican monetary system, has beenknown by many different names over the centuries. The officialname since it was created is: Ocho Reales or Real de a Ocho -"pieces of eight." However, shortly after its appearance, it cameto be known as Peso in the same manner that today, in Mexico,one uses toston for the 50-cent coin, peseta for the 25-cent piece,and in the U.S., the one cent coin is called a "penny."

But, let's see first why the coin initially was called OchoReales or Real de a Ocho. In the 14th century the basis of themonetary system in Castile, Spain, was the silver Real. This coinwas created by a decree signed by king Don Pedro the Cruel(1350-65) with the Latin expression, Numus Regalis (royal coin).It was given a value of three maravedis. The given name wassoon shortened to Real for common use.

A century later, Don Fernando and Doña Ysabel, theCatholic monarchs, signed at Medina del Campo, Spain, theirroyal decree dated June 13, 1497, which incorporated anOrdenanza revamping the monetary systems of all theirkingdoms. The part referring to silver coins says:

"Item, WE order and command that in each ofour mints, other silver coins be struck and be calledReales. These shall be sixty seven Reales to the Mark,and not less. The fineness shall be eleven dineros andfour grains, and not less; and that from these shouldbe struck Reales and Half Reales and Quarter Realesand Eighth Reales which should be weighed one byone so that they shall be equal in weight; and thatfrom the silver be struck one third in Reales, one thirdin Half Reales and the rest in Quarter Reales andEighth Reales by half part ... "

We wish to refer to the above mentioned Ordenanza,because it has numismatic and interesting information that wewish to discuss. We can see that it is ordered that "sixty sevenReales to the Mark" be minted. The word Mark or Marco camefrom the German word Mark as a unit of weight. For centuries itwas used as a weight unit for precious metals and it is equivalentto the half pound of Cologne, with a weight of 230.0465 grams inthe metric system.

In the same Ordenanza, the Catholic monarchs ordered "theweight of all coins to be tallied to the Cologne Mark when itcame to gold and silver and to the weight unit from Troy (Troyes,France) for all other things and substances." As time rolled by,the Cologne Mark also became known as "Marco de Castilla."

Now then, as the weight in grams of a Mark is known, it canbe divided by the number of coins ordered, 67, to obtain theweight of each coin. This gives a weight of 3.4335, that is, almostthree and a half grams for each silver Real.

We can see also that the alloy or fineness of silver coinsshould be "eleven dineros and four grains." We know that puresilver of one thousand mills is twelve dineros and that eachdinero is divided into twenty four grains.

Therefore, if one wishes to know the fineness of a silvercoin, one can divide one thousand into twelve dineros and get83.3333 per each dinero. This result is divided into 24 grains toget 3.4722 per each grain. Thus, one obtains a fineness of930.555 mills of silver in each coin. This is, by the way, thehighest silver fineness in Spanish or Spanish-American coinsever minted. It is really higher than the so called "sterlingsilver" of 925.0 mills, generally considered by silversmiths to bethe best.

A different system is used for gold. Gold of one thousandmills is equivalent to 24 karats, and each karat is divided in fourgrains. This system of karats and grains for gold is still in usetoday for defining the gold content in jewelry.

As can be seen in the Ordenanza, only Reales and fractionalcoins are ordered. No mention is made of silver coins larger indenomination than the one Real. The abundance of silver fromMexico and the need for larger denominations led to the strikingof heavier coins of two, four and, eventually, eight reales. Thusthe coin "piece of eight" came into being ... of necessity. Noroyal decree ordering the coin to be struck has been found.

One must also consider that at the end of the 15th century,Europe began to receive silver from the New World. A fewdecades later the remittances increased considerably, as moremines were being discovered in Mexico and their productionincreased. The triangle formed by Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí andZacatecas was, and still is, the silver triangle of the world.Recent statistics gathered by experts on the subject estimate thatapproximately 60 percent of all the present silver in the worldcame from the Mexican mines, for the most part from the silvertriangle mentioned above. In Europe trade and businessincreased. There was need for heavier coins. Europe then had theraw material: silver from the New World.

The Ocho Reales - eight reales - never had that value(denomination) spelled out in the legend. All coins of thisdenomination ever struck show only the abbreviation "8 R."However, as stated above, it was called, in the Spanish world,PESO.

There are several old documents that may prove this. Amongthem, a royal decree signed at Zaragoza, Spain, March 29, 1503by Fernando and Ysabel and sent to the Governor of the islandLa Española, now Santo Domingo, that tells us:

that two foundries be erected ...that the clergymen be paid ONE HUNDRED PESOSper annum ..."

From this we can see that, officially, the term peso was usedto designate the eight-real piece. It also proves that for nearlyfive centuries the Ocho Reales has been known as PESO. It alsotells us that the denomination peso came to us from Spain and itdid not originate in Mexico, as some historians have indicated.

Contrary to the opinion of many persons who think that forcenturies many coins have shown the legend Un Peso, this didnot happen until the last century.

The first coin with the legend UN PESO was a silver piecestruck in 1817 by Chile, followed by a second from Uruguay in1844. Colombia struck her first coin with the legend Un Peso in1855. Bolivia and Guatemala followed, four years later, in 1859.Many years had to go by before Argentina struck her first Peso in1881 with Paraguay joining in 1889.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the number of coinswith the legend Un Peso increased. There is El Salvador in 1892.A bit later, in 1895, Puerto Rico, still as a Spanish possession.Two years later, 1897, the Dominican Republic followed suit.The same year, the Cuban revolutionaries in the United Statesstruck a coin (?) with the legend "Souvenir." The following year,1898, the same piece was struck with the legend Un Peso.

In 1874, a curiosity was struck with the denomination UnPeso. A French adventurer, Orllie-Antoine, declared himselfking of Patagonia in Southern Chile. He ordered coins struckwith the following legend: Obv. ORLLIE-ANTOINE I(R) ROID'ARAUCANIE ET DE PATAGONIE. Rev. NOUVELLEFRANCE / UN / PESO / 1874. As stated this "coin" is only anumismatic curiosity. It was never legal tender.

Shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan, Mexico, D.F., onAugust 13, 1521, the Spanish conquistadores continued theirexplorations crossing valleys, mountains and oceans. By 1525,Garcia de Loaiza had already crossed the Pacific Ocean. OnNovember 21st, 1564, Miguel Lopez Legazpi, with the title of"Adelantado," along with the friar Andrés de Urdaneta, sailedfrom Barra de Navidad on the west coast of Mexico to colonizean archipelago in the Far East. Legazpi named the archipelagoFILIPINAS in honor of Felipe II, then king of Spain. In 1571 hefounded Manila as its capital.

Trade between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippinesbegan and soon was a real institution. People used to say " ...the Manila galleon carries, eastbound to Acapulco, porcelainsand silks; westbound, friars and silver Pesos ..."

The Far East became a very important customer for Mexicansilver coins. All the oriental countries asked for more silver coinsfrom Mexico. From the Philippines, the Mexican pesos passed toIndia, Siam, Indochina, Japan and many other countries, butspecially China. This was due, primarily, to the fact that theMexican peso always maintained its silver fineness. This is alsothe reason why it was nicknamed: AN HONEST DOLLAR. Lastcentury and even at the beginning of this, the Mexican peso wasalso referred to, in business transactions, as the Mex-Dollar inthe Far East.

For nearly three centuries the Philippines, as part of theSpanish empire, used coins minted in Spanish America, primarilyfrom the Mexico mint. It is only natural, therefore, that thePhilippines should use the name Peso when referring to theOcho Reales coin. Today they still use the denomination PISO(sic) for their present monetary unit, an obvious reminiscence ofthe long-time-used Mexican peso.

For a number of years in Mexico, Spain and, very likely,other parts of the Spanish world, the silver two-real coin wasreferred to as PESETA, "small peso", but no coin had beenstruck bearing the legend Peseta. On July 21, 1808, the juntaBarcelonesa in Spain authorized the striking of a coin with thelegend: EN BARCELONA / PESETA / 1809, apparently forcirculation in Barcelona. Sixty years later, in 1868, the GobiernoProvisional in Madrid struck the first peseta with nationalcirculation. Since then the monetary unit of Spain has been the UnaPeseta or small peso.

During colonial days in the U.S., the silver Ocho Reales coin,referred to as the Spanish milled dollar, was the principal coin incirculation. This coin and its fractional parts, the half, one, two,and four reales, were legal currency until February 21, 1857 inthe U.S., 1858 in Canada, and 1895 in Puerto Rico. The greatmajority of these coins were Mexican pesos, due to our geographicalproximity to and the large production of the Mexican mints.

From a paper read in Congress, in 1821, by the sixth Presidentof the United States, John Quincy Adams, one can sense theeconomic condition of the country in the last few decades of the18th century (free translation from a Spanish version):

"... at the end of our war for Independence, we foundourselves with four English words: Pound, Shilling,Pence and Farthing. But although they were Englishwords, it was difficult to find two States of the Unionin which said words represented the same value. Theuse of these words was as at Babel. In our new systemwe eliminated them. We took the Spanish piece ofeight, that had been always the most popular coinamong us, and gave it a new name: Dollar. Introducingthe decimal monetary system we said: the tenthpart of a dollar should be called disme (sic) and theone hundredth part a cent, and the one thousandthone mille ... "

So, next time you happen to have a silver dollar in yourhand, think for a second that its grandfather was an Ocho Realesor Peso, very likely from a Mexican mint.

In Mexico, the first coin with the legend Un Peso was struckin 1866 during the Maximilian empire. The first Republican pesois dated 1869. It is known as Peso de Balanza, "scale peso." It isbecause of their appearance during the time of Maximilian thatsome people have the erroneous impression that he brought thedecimal monetary system to Mexico. This is not so. Several yearsbefore, in 1857, Don Ignacio Comonfort, President of Mexico,had decreed the formation of the "Dirección de Pesas yMedidas", similar to the U.S. Bureau of Standards, and in March15th of the same year the Decimal Monetary System wasdecreed. A bit later the Decimal Monetary System wasincorporated.

Due to the political situation then prevailing in Mexico andthe French invasion of 1862, it was not possible to strikeRepublican pesos until 1869. The Government of the Republicwas only able to mint decimal coins of one centavo in copper atthe Mexico city and San Luis Potosí mints and silver coins of fiveand ten centavos at the San Luis Potosí mint.

We wish to call your attention to the use of the legend UNPESO in Mexico. In this chapter metal coins have been discussedexclusively. One must, however, make an exception and refer,this time to paper money to point out that the legend UN PESOappeared for the first time in Mexico on the paper money of theFirst Empire of Don Agustín de Iturbide.

The decree dated December 20, 1822 authorized the issue offour million pesos in the following manner:

Two million$ 1.00 notes$2,000,000.00
Half million2.00 notes1,000,000.00
One hundred thousand10.00 notes1,000,000.00

These notes are approximately 15 x 10 cm. They are printedin black ink and have a rudimentary look. In the text of the notesand in the left upper corner they show the legend: UN PESO,DOS PESOS or DIEZ PESOS.

We must add that several South American countries havenever minted coins with the denomination Un Peso. Amongthem we have Perú that preferred the denomination Un Sol;Ecuador, Un Sucre; and Venezuela, Un Bolivar. Brazil at onetime had the Reis and nowadays Un Cruzeiro.

In Central America, Nicaragua had Un Cordoba; Panama,Un Balboa; and Costa Rica, Un Colón. The first two countriespreferred conquistadores, the third, a discoverer. It should benoted that Costa Rica did have gold coins with the pesodenomination from 1864 to 1872.

Among the various names that the Mexican peso has beengiven in Mexico, we may cite the following: peso macuquino(cob), silver peso, circular peso, milled peso, colonial peso, oldsilver peso, both worlds peso, world and seas peso, columnario(pillar) peso, bust or face peso, resplandor (liberty cap) peso,national peso, balanza (scale) peso, caballito (little horse) peso, etc.But, beyond doubt, the names most widely used were: pesofuerte (strong) and peso duro (hard) or simply DURO.

Besides the above list, admittedly incomplete, the Mexicanpeso during its jaunts throughout the world received many othernames. In Italy it was known as Colonnato; in Germany, SaeulenPiaster; in Holland, Reaal von Achten; in the English-speakingcountries, Spanish Milled Dollar, Pillar Dollar and Piece ofEight. This last denomination was made popular by Robert LouisStevenson in his novel Treasure Island. In the Southeast UnitedStates the real was referred to as a "bit;" the peseta (2 R) "twobits;" the tostón (4 R) "four bits" and the ocho reales or Mexicanpeso as "eight bits."

Although the above names are interesting, we believe thatthe nickname that tops them all is the name given to ourColumnarion in Egypt. In that country it was referred to as Abu-Mafta"two cannons". It seems that the Egyptians mistook the twopillars of Hercules represented in the coin for two cannons.

The main reason for the denomination Peso is, no doubt, dueto its physical weight. In the trade of merchandise in general, thefactors of quality and weight are of utmost importance. It isnatural, therefore, that when man began using metals as a meansof exchange, the alloys or fineness as well as the weight of themetals were both important. The fineness and the weight of themetals could vary. So it was necessary to verify the fineness bymeans of an assay. The weight of the coins was easy to verifyusing a scale. The old Flemish masters have endowed us with theirpaintings of merchants weighing coins.

Since Biblical times, the weight and value of coins have beenrelated. In old Babylon there was a coin called "talentum"which, originally, had been a weight used in a scale. Nowadayswe use the word "talent" to qualify a person that has worth, likethe coin in Babylon. In the same manner the coin "shekel" usedby the Hebrews and adopted later by the Phoenicians and otherSemitic peoples, was originally a weight unit.

Since the beginning of coinage, as we can see, the value andweight of coins have been intimately related. In ancient Greece,as well as in the time of the Romans, the weight of a coin wasimportant and received constant attention. As a matter of fact, theRoman monetary system was based on the physical weight ofthe coin.

In approximately 400 B.C., the Romans began circulating abronze coin named As, which originally weighed one Libra, thatis, one Roman pound. The As was divided into twelve parts.Each of these parts was called Uncia, from which we get theword ounce used today as a weight unit. We also get the wordinch from the same word uncia. We must bear in mind thatprecision in weight at that time might not have been as exact as itis today.

Due to its physical weight, the coin called As was alsoreferred to as Libra. Very likely the two names were usedsimultaneously. As centuries went by, the denomination As fellinto disuse; but not so the denomination libra. However, wemust point out that the physical weight of the coins was beingdiminished drastically. To better illustrate this idea, one canrefer to the coin used nowadays in Italy called lira - from theRoman libra. Instead of one pound, however, it weighs only afew grams.

As is well known, the Roman empire covered a good part ofEurope as well as around the Mediterranean - the Romans usedto call it Mare Nostrum - "our sea". Therefore, the denominationlibra continued being used in many countries bordering theMediterranean basin, first as circulating coin and later as moneyof account. Thus the word libra passed from Rome to Lombardyin Northern Italy, and thence to France with the denominationlivre. At one point in history, France struck a coin with the Latinlegend: ... REX FRANCORUM ... - "king of the Franks"(French). People began calling this coin franc and gradually thedenomination libra was replaced by franc which still is themonetary unit of France.

Great Britain - Albion for the Greeks and Britannia for theRomans - adopted the monetary system of the Roman invaders.After the Romans were expelled, the Anglo-Saxons continuedusing the Roman denomination libra. Britain still uses it denotedby the capital letter L crossed by a hyphen (-), £. However, theypronounce it "pound" from the Latin word pondus, "weight" -that is, peso.

The denomination libra has also been used in America. Perústruck gold coins with the denomination libra from 1898 to 1969.In the French possessions of the Antilles, - Martinique,Guadaloupe, etc. -, the denomination pound and/or libra/livrewas applied to the eight real coins, usually holed and/orcountermarked, minted in Spanish America, the majority from Mexicanmints. However, no coin was ever struck in the Antilles bearingthe denomination libra or livre.

We can corroborate the importance of the physical weight inSpanish and Spanish-American coins by going back to the royaldecree of June 13, 1497, mentioned before. In the part referringto the weight of the coin, we can read:

"Item, WE order and command that allsaid coins in gold or silver that WE noworder to be minted, be received if theyare in weight and if they are not inweight, they shall not be worth nor bereceived in exchange or in payment orin any other manner."
Further, in the same decree, we can read:
"Item, WE order and command thatthe scale master shall receive, by thebalance needle and deliver by thebalance needle at the mint, the coins ingold, silver or billon brought by themerchants and the foremen and workers.""Item, WE order and command that thescale master and the guardians demandthat the weights, ponderals (weightunits) and the dinerals (coin weights) beweighed before an official scribe ONCEEVERY MONTH so neither of the twoparts receive any harm."

From the above we can see the importance that always hasbeen given to the physical weight of the coins, from antiquity toour days. As we are all aware, from the end of the last century,and more so in our present century, the use of various alloys ofcopper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, as well as stainless steel, brassand others are used more and more in the minting of coins.Nowadays, any coin of fine metal put in circulation will have avery short life. It can be said that such coins would immediatelybe hoarded.

The coins in circulation throughout the world today have afiduciary rather than intrinsic value, in a similar manner topaper money. The same piece of paper may be worth one, ten, ahundred or a thousand, that is, the value is printed on the pieceat will. The metal content or weight of a coin is secondary.Today the mints of the world look on metals from a differentviewpoint: availability, cost, life span, ease of manufacture, etc.

To close, I have always considered it logical that the word"peso" was used as the denomination for the eight-real coin.Let us look at its manufacturing process. When the flans or metaldiscs were cut from the silver strip used, these flans wereweighed with a precision balance. If the flans were short inweight they were sent back to the foundry to be melted again. Ifthey were overweight, small pieces were cut or filed out untilthe flans had the required weight, "peso" in Spanish. This is tosay, the flans had been transformed into one weight or UNPESO.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (1)
The first Mexican mint, known as the Casa de Cortés,operated from 1535 through 1569.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (2)
Queen Doña Juana de Castilla (1479-1555)signed the decree authorizing the mint.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (3)
Dating from c. 1536, the first coins mintedin America were of Karolus and Johanna.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (4)
The first 8-real piece minted in America was that ofFelipe II (1556-1598).

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (5)
Minted from 1732-71, the coulumnario,or pillar dollar, is regarded as the first"universal" coin.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (6)
Bust-type coins, minted from 1772-1821,carry the effigies of Carlos III,Carlos IV, and Fernando VII.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (7)
Coins depicting the liberty capwere minted from 1823-1909.

Perspectives in Numismatics - A Coin Called Peso (10)
Facing eagle and liberty cap designswere struck from 1824-1909.

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