Author Topic: Factors behind international coin size differences  (Read 2418 times)

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Offline <k>

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Factors behind international coin size differences
« on: August 22, 2011, 09:13:25 PM »
As a child growing up in the England of the 1960s, I was well used to our large pre-decimal penny. Before the decade was out, I made my first trip abroad - if you exclude Scotland, that is! It was a school trip to the Netherlands, and we stayed at a youth hostel in Middelburg. What surprised me was the small size of the Dutch coins compared to our British ones. Their 10 cents coin was a tiny thing.

In 1971 Britain went decimal, and our massive pre-decimal penny was made defunct. Our new decimal penny (worth 2.4 old pence) was a much smaller affair. Even nowadays, though, our British coins seem larger than those of our Continental cousins. Partly this could be because some British coins are size and weight related: the 2p coin is twice as big and heavy as the 1p coin; the same applies respectively to the 10 and 5p coins. But the 2p coin now seems a massive thing compared to its trivial worth.

So, two questions occur to me:

1] Which factors do you think lie behind Britain's relatively large and heavy coinage?

2] Does the coinage of any other modern country seem especially large or heavy to you?


In sum, is there anything behind the size of a country's coins apart from tradition?

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Online Figleaf

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #1 on: August 22, 2011, 10:33:58 PM »
After the Napoleonic wars, a gap opened between the smallest silver coin and the largest copper coin in many countries. Germany was an exception, as it was busy reforming its many coinages into one national currency. Russia was another exception as it offered small silver as well as large copper at the same time. In other countries, the smallest silver was found too small and the largest copper too heavy. In most cases, the small silver coin got in trouble. Some examples:

In France, the 20 centimes was very small and at long last no longer accepted. In the Netherlands, the silver 5 cent was discontinued due to lacking demand. In Belgium, both the copper 10 and the silver 20 were found inconvenient. In Italy, the weight of the silver 20 centesimi was only 1 gram. In Greece, the 20 lepta was was just as light.

In Britain, the 3 pence was just as impopular. What changed the equation was a wave of revolutions in 1840, 1848 and 1870. By 1875, the once heavy coppers had been cut down to acceptable size bronzes. The small silver had disappeared. Countries started experimenting with other mint metals to fill the gap. Belgium was first, replacing its copper 5 and 10 centimes and its silver 20 centimes with copper-nickel coins. Others followed, though not necessarily so radically. The Dutch made only a copper-nickel 5 cent.

Britain did not follow this pattern. Had it done so, the threepence and maybe the penny would have been replaced by a copper-nickel coin. Interestingly, no copper-nickel pattern 3d is known from this period. There are some copper-nickel penny patterns, but they are the same size as the regular coins. My guess is that they were made to try the metal, not to see if the penny could be replaced by a much smaller coin. I suppose that Britain was much less affected by the revolutions (though it had its share of anarcho-pacifists), so its currency appreciated in terms of the other currencies - in the case of the Dutch gulden from about ƒ10 to about ƒ12. That increased the buying power of the threepence enough to keep it more practical. In addition, political discourse made more and more of "splendid isolation", to the point where anything coming from the Europea mainland was found suspicious, probably including copper-nickel coins.

The end result of the diverging trend was that mainland European coins tended to be in more metals and a smaller band of sizes than British coins. The aberration was rectified for the smaller denominations with decimalization, but the relation between shilling and 5p made it impossible to make the larger denominations smaller until the pre-decimal coins were "forgotten".

I think that today, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a circulating coin that is either exceptionally large or exceptionally small. Round US dollars come to mind, but you find them only in gambling halls. Since brass, aluminium and bimetallic coins were added, outsized and undersized coins are neither needed nor accepted.

Peter
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Offline malj1

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #2 on: August 22, 2011, 10:44:29 PM »
Australia and New Zealand still use those same British size coins, our penny and Halfpenny were replaced with a smaller one and two cent but these have now been discontinued.

Nowadays we still have 5, 10, 20cents at the same sizing as the old 6d, 1/- and 2/- plus a fifty cent much the same size as the half-crown but twice the value.
Malcolm
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Offline <k>

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #3 on: August 22, 2011, 11:27:52 PM »
Australia and New Zealand still use those same British size coins, our penny and Halfpenny were replaced with a smaller one and two cent but these have now been discontinued.

Nowadays we still have...a fifty cent much the same size as the half-crown but twice the value.

So that was five shillings in equivalent UK values, or 25p now - though I believe the Aussie dollar has appreciated significantly against the pound sterling over the years. At 31.5mm, your 50c coin is way too large compared to its value, I would say, as it buys hardly anything these days.
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Offline <k>

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #4 on: August 22, 2011, 11:32:16 PM »
After the Napoleonic wars, a gap opened between the smallest silver coin and the largest copper coin in many countries... the smallest silver was found too small and the largest copper too heavy. In most cases, the small silver coin got in trouble...What changed the equation was a wave of revolutions in 1840, 1848 and 1870. By 1875, the once heavy coppers had been cut down to acceptable size bronzes. The small silver had disappeared. Countries started experimenting with other mint metals to fill the gap.

Which factors in the revolutions caused these changes? And why does copper-nickel allow a smaller coin size - is it heavier than copper and silver?
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Online Figleaf

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #5 on: August 23, 2011, 01:26:43 AM »
It's just the way the price of copper in term of silver (or its inverse) moved.

Any new mint metal will allow smaller size, because it forms a different range. Think of having to make eight denominations with diameters of 2.5 mm apart and a minimum size of 20 mm. If you have one metal, the largest coin will be 37.5 mm, larger than a UK crown. Now allow for two series of four coins, one series in copper, one in silver, where the difference between a copper and a silver coin must be at least 1 mm. Your smallest diameters will be 20, 21, 22.5, 23.5, 25, 26, 27.5 and 28.5mm. Now introduce two coins of a third metal, both holed and thicker than the others. Diameters are unimportant, because of the holes and thickness. Now your largest coin will be only 26 mm. Each new coin metal allows for coins of similar dimensions, as long as they can be easily distinguished by colour, shape or both and can be told apart mechanically.

If you could make eight coins that look totally different, they could all have the same diameter. In practice, though, people would still want different sizes as tactile aids - especially important for the blind.

Peter
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Offline malj1

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #6 on: August 23, 2011, 03:06:40 AM »
......In practice, though, people would still want different sizes as tactile aids - especially important for the blind.
Peter

As would the slot machine industry also.
Malcolm
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Offline FosseWay

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Re: Factors behind international coin size differences
« Reply #7 on: August 23, 2011, 09:49:18 AM »
In addition, political discourse made more and more of "splendid isolation", to the point where anything coming from the Europea mainland was found suspicious, probably including copper-nickel coins.

In the British context, I suspect this was a significant factor, even if possibly subconsciously.

UK non-gold coinage has been 'token' since the start of the 19th century. In other words, since then no attempt has been made to make the intrinsic value of the metal of a coin equal its circulation value; coins have circulation value through the confidence their users have in their issuer's authority, just as banknotes do. As far as I know the last circulating UK coins that attempted to provide the denomination's worth in metal were the copper Cartwheels of 1797, but I may be forgetting some silver of the first decade of the 19th century. Certainly the bank tokens (for 1s 6d and 3s) issued between 1811 and 1813 didn't contain 1s 6d or 3s worth of silver, and this was then made the norm with the recoinage of 1816.

That being the case, there was absolutely no reason why UK coins couldn't have been reduced in size or produced in different metals during the period 1816-1971 to a far greater extent than actually occurred. Essentially, there were only three significant changes in the copper/silver coinage in that 155-year period: the change from copper to bronze in 1860, the replacement of the silver threepence with the 12-sided brass one, and the demonetisation of the farthing. There were changes in composition for 'silver' coins but this didn't affect their legal tender status or practical usability. The powers that be could have removed the 1:2:4 ratio for farthings, halfpennies and pennies (and sixpences, shillings and florins) at any time, thus permitting smaller coppers (in particular).

Therefore I tend towards the thought that the factor I've selectively quoted from Peter's post was especially important. No such qualms were had by the French; until the First World War France had a very UK-style range of denominations and sizes, but then went through a great many changes of composition and size until the advent of the new franc in 1960.