Small investments: A closer look at micro money

Money plays a giant role in everyone's lives, but that doesn't always mean it is physically large. At various points in history, coinage changed shape and size depending on the needs of the people making and using it.

The very first coins ever produced were in ancient Lydia (modern-day Turkey) in the 7th century BCE. These coins were made from a metal called electrum, a naturally occurring mixture of gold and silver, and were usually very, very small.

An example of the first coins from Lydia is this 1/12 stater measuring 0.17 millimeters and weighing 1.176 grams. This coin may be small, but it tells a big story about the origins of the eastern coinage tradition, a precursor to today's coinage.

The obverse, or front, of the coin features the head of a lion, also known as the "Lydian Lion." The symbol signals that this coin has been approved by an issuing authority, verifying its worth in the community and its status as official currency of the king throughout his kingdom. Before these coins were issued, most trade was facilitated through barter or through use of unstandardized metal pieces without imagery. It is fascinating to think that something so small was the beginning of our entire economic system.

Gold coin that looks more like a raised metal button than a coin. Image on it is not very clear.

Gold chunk of metal. It's a coin but looks thicker than you expect a coin to look. Seems smooshed.

Another small piece of currency that circulated in the ancient world is an obol from Athens, ancient Greece, dating to the 5th century BCE. This obol features the head of the goddess Athena on the obverse and the Athenian owl on the reverse. Most obols were worth 1/6 of a drachma and usually weighed around 0.70 grams. In ancient Greece it was common to bury deceased family members with an obol in their mouth so that they could pay Charon (the ferryman of Hades) for passage across the River Styx and into Hades. According to myth, souls unable to pay the fee were fated to wander the banks of the river for 100 years.

Gray hunk of metal that appears to be a coin but seems thicker. Image is hard to discern.

Chunky metal coin with image of owl in it. Image is a little rough and not perfectly clear.

Pint-size currency was popular in the ancient world, but more recent examples can also be found. During the 1750s in Regensburg, a city in southeast Germany, a small coin was produced worth 1/32 of a ducat. These coins measure 0.5 millimeters and weigh roughly 0.10 grams. Often these coins were issued in a small container that held 32 separate pieces, equaling one ducat. During the time of this coin’s circulation, mints were producing varied denominations and even produced large coinage worth as much as 100 ducats.

Image of gold metal coin with a tree or bird design.

Gold metal coin with two keys on it as part of the design. They cross.

During the California gold rush, a shortage of small change and coinage prompted jewelers, bankers, and other commercial entities to begin privately minting gold coinage in 1852. This diverse group of "minters" allowed for more varied engravings and experimentation with smaller denominations. Many of these coins were denominated in 25 cents, 50 cents, and 1 dollar and are often octagonal or round in shape. The fractional gold piece featured below is worth ¼ dollar (25 cents) and weighs 0.23 grams.

Image of two coins. One is huge, one is small. Huge one includes portrait of a man in profile with long curly hair and rich attire. Small one includes image of tree.

While many of the coins featured above are small in physical size, each coin had a huge impact on its community and on the history of coinage. From ancient Greece to the California gold rush, minute coinage allowed for the decimalization of larger currencies and facilitated trade and the economy. These coins prove that money is money, no matter how small.

Coin with straight edges like a stop sign. Portrait of man with prominent nose, some kind of hat, and curls.

Hillery York is collections manager for the National Numismatic Collection.

Posted in Numismatics