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Pieces of Eight

August, 2010
By: Lance Tchor & Larry Michelson
WINGS™ Coins, LLC

Otherwise known as Pillar dollars, these romantic Spanish coins circulated in early America and fueled the world economy.

Did you know that a Spanish coin once was considered legal currency in the United States?

Well, until 1857, the “Pillar dollar” (popularly known as a “Spanish milled dollar” or “piece of eight,” valued at 8 reales) was just such a coin. Its obverse bore a depiction of the Pillars of Hercules, the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar.

This silver coin was widely accepted around the world and, in fact, probably was one of the earliest forms of international currency. The Second Continental Congress granted the coin’s legal-tender status on September 2, 1776. As such, the 8 reales was America’s first de facto silver coin, serving as a model for the U.S. Mint’s own silver dollars.

The obverse motto, VTRAQUE VNUM (Ultra Que Unum), is interpreted as “Both Are One,” referring to the two hemispheres shown at the center. (The legend likely is the forerunner of the motto on U.S. currency, E PLURI BUS UNUM, which means, “Out of Many, One.”) The banners around the pillars read PLUS and ULTRA (“More Beyond”).

On the reverse, the arms of Spain, showing lions and castles representing the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, are surmounted by a crown. The assayer’s initials are at the left, with the denomination “8” at the right.

Of virtually identical weight and size, Spanish milled dollars were struck on a coin press, new technology for the time. The term “milled” means the coin blanks were produced by a machine that imparted a finished edge. This consistency helped the dollars gain world acceptance and established their reputation as generally superior coins.

What is particularly interesting about these silver issues is that they were minted not in Spain, but in its colonies (notably Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico). The Mexico City mint was the first to produce the Pillar dollar and the only one to strike them during the reign of Philip V (1724-46).

Many collectors know the 8 reales as the coin behind the phrase “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar.” In some areas, 1-real coins were made by slicing pieces of eight into eight, pie-shaped “bits” (each worth 121⁄2 cents). Thus, “two bits” came to denote a U.S. quarter dollar. (When the United States got around to issuing silver coinage, it simply replicated the weight and value of the Spanish unit and its fractions.)

Wings Coins article in the Numismatist - Pieces of Eight

If you have a topic or question you’d like us to address, please leave a comment below or send us an email: info@wingscoins.com.

Reproduced courtesy of The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)

Photos: www.wikipedia.org (portrait) & Heritage Auction Galleries

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