From Thalers to Dollars
By: Marc Bink
In a previous article, I wrote about an early Saxon Thaler that I found at one of our semi-annual Money Shows. We rarely see these huge, expensive silver coins here, and I have always wanted to build a collection of them. At the last RCNA Convention that was held in Edmonton I was able to increase my collection of them without bankrupting myself. So I’ve decided to do a series of articles on these coins, it should work out to 4 parts in all. For starters, I wanted to write a brief history of the Thaler, giving the reader a basic background as to how the coin came about and briefly trace its evolution into our dollar of today. I hope that this will establish a frame of reference for the remaining articles. However, since the topic is so large, a lot of the background history detailing the politics and economics of Europe will have to be omitted. Primarily out of fear of boring the reader to death, but mostly because this isn’t the proper forum for it. (It is fascinating stuff though!) So I would implore you to put away the ropes and bear with me for a while.
So what is a Thaler?
The Thaler was a large sized silver coin used in Europe for about 400 years; it provided a benchmark upon which many local small currencies were based. It gave Europe a standard unit of trade, and its size and purity was surprisingly strictly regulated in order to facilitate trade between the thousands of tiny city-states, duchies, provinces, and kingdoms that made up the Holy Roman Empire. In many cities and states, it was the largest general circulating coin and would probably be worth, in its heyday, about a week’s wages for a skilled labourer. In its most common form, around the middle of the 17th century, its weight and purity was established to be 29.1 grams, and a purity of no less than .889 silver. Actual diameters vary; some are thin and large, others are thicker and about the same size as a modern silver dollar. Most were hammered in the 16th and early 17th centuries; milling starting in around 1650 or so.
Joachimsthaler, Czech government copy.
And now the history lesson; In the Beginning…
The Holy Roman Empire was a very loose confederation of kingdoms, duchies, and city-states that existed from around 800 AD to its ultimate disintegration in 1815. It consisted of the areas in Europe that are now called Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy; at various times parts of France, the Low Countries and Poland were included. A Holy Roman Emperor, elected from from one of the participating states by a group of Electors, nominally ruled this sprawling mass. In the day and age of the Thaler, the Hapsburg family was the dominant ruling family of Europe. They had embarked on a course that would see them holding lands from Spain through the Low Countries into Germany and Austria proper. During the 1500’s the Hapsburgs were engaged in constant wars to try and gain control of all of Europe, and they just about succeeded too. The Hapsburgs had managed to sway Electors and Dukes to support them, those that didn’t were subject to threats, economic sanctions, and outright war. The Hapsburg attempt at hegemony in all of Europe ended with the 30 Years war of 1618-48. So in a nutshell, the Holy Roman Empire was nothing but a bunch a warring factions that could barely get along with each other, and when they did, they needed a standard unit of currency with which to trade. This is where the Thaler came in. It more or less became Europe’s first “Euro”. The Hapsburg’s attempts at domination may have left the Holy Roman Empire’s economy in a shambles, devaluing the Thaler, but it remained the prime unit of exchange throughout the next 200 years.
As a result of always being at war, much of Europe’s coinage was of pretty poor quality by the end of the fifteenth century. There were literally hundreds of different types of currency, as every city-state, duchy, or kingdom had its own unit of currency. There was no standard between any of them, due to many factors, the primary one being the state’s financial situation. Some were tied to a similar value system, like the North German Schilling of the Hanseatic League, but in most cases it was conceivable that two towns 5 miles apart could be using two different currencies. In order to finance the constant battles and keep armies in the field, rulers were forced to debase and re-evaluate whatever silver coinage they had access to. As a result, there was a lot of theft and pillaging going on as these rulers sought to keep themselves solvent. A lot of precious silver and gold also wound up heading east in the silk and spice trade. It got so bad that some groschen style coins were debased to the point of only having 5 % silver content, rendering them essentially worthless. At the end of the 15th century, some large silver deposits were being discovered, and mines were beginning to open up. In 1484, Archduke Sigismund of Tirol issued the first Halb-Guldengroschen, of roughly 15 grams. These coins are incredibly rare, and it seems it was a trial strike, but it set a standard. It wasn’t until the big silver mine at Schwaz opened up that a true Thaler sized coin made its appearance 2 years later, also minted by Sigismund at Hall. This coin was double the size of the previous coin, and was called the Guildengroschen, or “guildiner”. It was soon adopted by other states that had access to the required amounts of silver. Since this was the early Renaissance, coin engravers began making elaborate and beautiful designs featuring and emphasizing the heraldry and shields of the rulers they were working for. Also popular at the time was to depict the ruler as realistic as possible, and as a result there were some pretty unflattering portraits made that have provided amusement for generations. Take a look at Krause’s 1600-1700 catalog in the Saxony section and you’ll see what I mean.
Bavarian Thaler ,Munich mint 1694. Check out Max’s wild hair-do!
Finally; a real Thaler!
The first “real” Thaler came from an area in what is now the Czech Republic called Bohemia. The silver for this issue came from an area called Joachimsthal, named after the father of the Virgin Mary. (The name “Joachim”, and “thal” in German means “Joachim’s valley”) St. Joachim is depicted on the reverse of the coin, and the Bohemian Lion is on the obverse; minting began in around 1518. These coins, as well as others minted from silver mined in adjacent areas were soon referred to as “Thalers”, meaning “from the valley”, and soon the name stuck and they soon became the accepted standard for coinage. As a result Bohemia got rich selling silver. Saxony was an early trading powerhouse that went exclusively over to the Thaler standard, and was prominent in setting the standards for this denomination. These early Thalers circulated alongside the guildiner, and eventually became more prominent as the guildiner was devalued. The Thaler could be called Europe’s first “Euro”, as it became the standard freely convertible denomination throughout Europe. In a 1566 Saxon Money Edict, the guildiner was eliminated as a denomination, and was fully replaced by a Thaler.
Standards for the purity and weight of these coins were set at various conferences and summits throughout the 17th through 19th centuries. The last one was the Vienna Monetary Contract of 1857, which finally took the Thaler off the old 12th century Cologne Mark standard. The new rate at which the Thaler was to be set at was deemed to be 900 silver, weighing 18.5 grams. This new coin, the “Vereinsthaler”, was supposed to set a uniform standard between the North and South German customs zones, and the Hapsburg Empire. This “Vereinsthaler” remained in various forms until 1931, when the last examples were finally demonetized. This final Thaler incarnation in Germany was the 3 Reichsmark coin, which in colloquial German was still referred to as a “Thaler”. The funny thing though, was that the new 5 Mark coin issued starting in 1871 was exactly the same size as the pre- 1850’s Thalers that preceded it, yet it was never referred to as a Thaler.
Thalers, Thalers everywhere…
Coins of the same size and similar specifications were minted in other countries outside of the Holy Roman Empire as well. In Scandinavia the Thaler was called Taler, or Daler, in Denmark it was referred to as “rigsdaler”, and in Sweden it was called the “riksdaler”. These coins were circulated until around 1873, when the Danish Krone, and the Swedish Krona replaced them. In the Netherlands, the Thaler was called the “Rijksdaalder”, or “leeuwendaalder”. The later coin also circulated extensively in North America until the British assumed control of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. As an aside, Dutch “Lion Dollars” circulated in Romania and Moldova, contributing its name to their national currencies, the “Leu”.
German 3 Marks, or a “Vereinsthaler”. Luebeck, 1911, (Berlin Mint).
Colloquially these coins were referred to as “Thalers” by the public.
In Britain, a Thaler sized coin was made starting in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it was referred to as a “Crown”. These silver coins were minted alongside gold versions of the same denomination, and were initially not very popular. This soon changed as England slowly slid into civil war. The silver crown became a standard, becoming more popular than the gold coin it replaced by the reign of Charles I. The Crown issues of Charles I were crude when compared to their continental counterparts, a sure indication of just how far standards slide during a war. Most were made on irregular planchets, and the striking quality was poor. The example that exists in my collection is indicative of the type, and almost embarrassingly ugly. However, by the time of the Restoration, England had improved the quality of its mint by replacing the hammers and switching over to a milled process, and soon the English Crown was as pretty and well made as anything on the continent. It was set at 5 shillings, with 4 Crowns making a Pound, or a Sovereign. It was referred to colloquially as a Dollar, an Anglicization of the German “Thaler” due to its convertibility to a continental Thaler. Half Crowns were referred to as “Half Dollars”, and these coins also circulated in North America throughout the British Colonies.
And finally, the Dollar comes into Being
In North America, Spanish coins circulated along with British and Dutch issues. The English coinage that the colonies were supposed to be using was usually in short supply, so anything of a similar fineness and weight was used and an exchange rate was established between them in English pounds. These Spanish 8 Reales pieces were referred to as “Pieces of 8”, or “Dollars”. Some were countermarked or holed, called “Holey-dollars”.
An early English Crown, Charles I under Parliament, 1642. The English Civil war was well underway, and the coinage suffered. This Coin is typical of what was made then, crude and irregular and softly struck.
These coins circulated until after the introduction of the American Dollar in 1793. The Americans called their new currency “Dollar”, no doubt because there were so many Spanish and Dutch “dalers” floating around and because they didn’t want a currency associated with the British Crown. Weights for the new US Dollar were based on the English Crown and the German Thalers, and all other types of coinage were rendered irrelevant. However, the proliferation of foreign coinage was continued in British Canada, and it wasn’t until 1854 when the Halifax standard established that a British Crown would be convertible to 1 local Dollar. The first Province of Canada issues were also set to this tariff, so 1 Dollar Canadian became equivalent to 1 British Crown, or 5 shillings.
Collecting the Thaler
Throughout the 17th century, most of the states in the Holy Roman Empire minted Thalers, and Thaler multiples. The larger coins are very rare and expensive to obtain today. The proliferation of Thalers minted by all the various states of the Holy Roman Empire would fill a book the size of a phone book. John S. Davenport’s book “Standard Price Guide to World Crowns & Talers 1484-1968” provides a standard catalog for these issues. Most are very beautiful examples of Renaissance Art, with intricate engraving and portraiture. Some of these coins will be detailed in future articles. The Saxon, Austrian, Bavarian and Brunswick series of Thalers are probably the most well known today, and probably the most sought after by modern collectors. For the more “advanced” collector, there were a number of Hungarian, Italian, and Czech based Thalers that were very beautiful, and highly sought after. The lesser German city-states are also avidly collected today. The mintage figures (when known) for any set of Thalers are low. Values for any of these coins could hardly be described as cheap. German Thalers were really “hot” in the mideighties and early nineties, and have been in a bit of slump since. Earlier coins from the 16th and 17th centuries are far more expensive than those from the 18th and 19th centuries. The “cheapest” set would be some of the Saxon states, and they typically are found at auctions or shows starting at around $200.00 and can very easily get into the thousands. There are a number of factors that contribute to the price; – rarity being the largest factor, and then beauty, followed by monarch or ruler.
English Crown, (Thaler sized) WilliamIII, 1696. This one is quite worn, but it shows that British Coins had improved a great deal since the earlier issues of Charles I.
Free Hanseatic City of Luebeck, Thaler of 48 Schilling, 1752.
Johann Justus Jaster, Mintmaster in Luebeck.
Collectors should be aware that most of the surviving coins have been cleaned and usually were mounted into jewelry at some point, so the key would be to find one that has the most eye appeal and proper weight when buying one. An original “survivor” with mild cabinet marks, natural toning, and that has never been mounted are probably the most sought after by collectors, and are by far the most expensive. Problem coins are far more common and they have a nasty habit of turning up with huge price tags affixed to them at dealers who don’t really have a good knowledge base of these coins. These coins are very popular in Europe, and not as avidly collected here in North America. The coins I bought would be considered “problem” coins over in Europe, but here they’re considered acceptable, since they’re so seldom seen. The best thing the new North American collector can do is to educate himself in what he wants to collect and not buy the first coin he sees. Most books, with the exception of the Krause series of catalogs, tend to price these coins with European standards of grading, which means that what we consider EF is actually VF or even F in a European catalog. European EF is closer to our AU. As a result, many dealers here in North America tend to overgrade these coins and do straight conversions on European pricing, not taking into account that there is virtually no market for these coins here. The best place to look for these coins is on-line with European dealers. There are a number of on-line shops that deal in good quality Thalers, with pricing to match. Recently, there have been quite a few high-end coins offered at auctions, either on-line or at shows or conventions, and some third party grading services have started “slabbing” these coins.
The Three Brothers Thaler, Saxony, Chemnitz Mint, 1598. Hans Biener, mintmaster.
A must have in any collection of German Thalers!
So it would appear that interest in Thalers is beginning to pick up again. So with that in mind, Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where I explore one of the more popular German Thalers on the market. So which one is it? Take a wild guess!
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-56 Issue-10