History of Copper and Silver and Gold Coins - England, Australia, US

England (and Australia before 1966)

Penny: First issued in England in 790 using just under 1½ grams of fine silver. 240 pennies (350 grams) equalled one (Tower) pound, with those scales kept in the Tower of London. From 1158, in the reign of King Henry II, sterling silver (92½% silver and 7½% copper) was used instead of fine silver.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1558, the penny's weight reduced to a ½ gram of sterling silver. Also minted at this time were the silver threepence 1½ grams, sixpence 3 grams, shilling (1/-) 6 grams, and crown (5/-) 30 grams with sterling silver valued at 5s.2d per troy ounce.

In 1797 the penny changed from a ½ gram silver coin to a 100% copper coin, initially 28.3 grams then after 1806 18.9 grams. After 1860 it became a bronze coin (95% copper, 4% tin 1% zinc) weighing 9.4 grams.

From 1816 in both England and Australia sterling silver was revalued to 5s.6d per troy ounce, and threepences reduced fractionally to 1.4 grams, sixpences 2.8 grams, shillings (1/-) 5.65 grams and in 1849 florins (2/-) 11.3 grams.
In England the silver content of the coins was reduced to 50% in 1920, then abandoned altogether in 1947. All four coins were subsequently made of copper and nickel.

From 1817 gold sovereigns worth £1 (20 shillings) contained 7.98 grams in 22ct standard gold i.e. 11/12ths purity or 7.32 grams fine (0.2354 troy oz). Half-sovereigns worth 10 shillings contained 3.99 grams.

The UK price had been fixed in 1717 by Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint in London, at 84 silver shillings and 11 pence ha'penny per troy ounce of fine gold (at 24ct 99.9% purity), or 77 shillings and 10 pence ha'penny (at 22ct 91.66% purity), becoming the British "gold standard" for over 200 years. But noting, as has been argued, "England did not establish the gold standard by any conscious and deliberate act, and it is doubtful whether anyone foresaw that it would establish itself." A.E. Feavearyear, 1931. Newton's intention at the time had been simply to revalue the gold guinea coin, fine weight just under a ¼ ounce (0.2472 oz), back to 21 shillings from 21 shillings and sixpence.

The new gold sovereigns were minted in London (from 1817), in Sydney (from 1855), in Melbourne (from 1872) and in Perth (from 1899). Since September 19, 1931 when both England and Australia abandoned the gold standard they have been collectors items only.

In 1971 England adopted decimal currency where £1 equalled 100p. The penny (1p) remained bronze but its weight was now 3.56 grams. A 2p coin was 7.12 grams.
Since 1992 both have been made of copper plated steel (steel is an iron carbon alloy). 1p and 2p coins are legal tender for transactions up to the value of 20p.
5p and 10p coins, since 2010 made up of 3¼ grams and 6½ grams of nickel plated steel need only be accepted for transactions up to £5.

Over to Australia.

In Australia, all silver coins were supplied by the London mint until 1916 when the Melbourne mint began silver coin production, followed in the 1930s by the Perth mint. The silver content of these coins was reduced to 50% in 1946, then abandoned altogether in 1966 with the advent of decimal currency.

Australia since 1966

Coins are only legal tender up to $5 for any combination of 5c 10c 20c and 50c coins, and need only be accepted up to $10 for $1 coins, and up to $20 for $2 coins.
Since 1966, all Australian coins are manufactured at the Canberra mint.

ValueFirst IssuedCurrent WeightCurrent CompositionComments
One cent19662.6 grams97% copper
2½% zinc
½% tin
Withdrawn in 1991 as metal value exceeded face value
Two cent19665.2 grams97% copper
2½% zinc
½% tin
Withdrawn in 1991 as metal value exceeded face value
Five cent19662.83 gramsCopper 75%
Nickel 25%
Ten cent19665.65 gramsCopper 75%
Nickel 25%
Twenty cent196611.3 gramsCopper 75%
Nickel 25%
Fifty cent196615.55 gramsCopper 75%
Nickel 25%
Initially released as 80% silver, 20% copper but this coin was discontinued as silver content exceeded face value. In 1969 it was reissued in its current form with a twelve-sided coin to differentiate it from 20 cent coin.
One dollar19849 gramsCopper 92%
Aluminium 6%
Nickel 2%
Two dollar19886.6 gramsCopper 92%
Aluminium 6%
Nickel 2%


Before the American Revolution in 1776, all coins were minted in England, and in other foreign countries. These coins remained legal tender in the USA until 1857.

The initial US coins were the

  1. 1 cent and ½ cent Copper coins
  2. $1 Silver coins at 27.0 grams (24.1 grams fine, or about 90% purity) also 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents (two-bits), and 50 cents.
    Note, with the California Gold Rush, one dollar and three dollar gold coins were also minted 1849-1889. Smaller silver denominations in the United States were disappearing as the bullion value of silver exceeded the face value of US silver coinage in terms of gold by one-sixteenth. In 1853 the content of silver in the US dollar was officially reduced by 6.9%. In 1874 the value of silver dropped, and by 1876 all silver coins were being used again as money.
  3. $10 Gold Eagle coins, also quarter eagle $2.50, half eagle $5.00 and double eagle $20.00.
    The $10 coin issued in 1795 contained 17½ grams in 22ct standard gold (91.7% purity) or 16.05 grams fine. In 1837 it was reduced to 16.72 grams (90% purity) or 15.05 grams fine, a reduction in fine gold of one-sixteenth. At its new price of $20.67 per troy ounce, this fixed the US $ against the UK £ at 4s.2d sterling, a rate it maintained until 1931, when the UK abandoned the gold standard.
    With the building of Fort Knox in 1933, US President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that all holdings of gold coins (and certificates and bullion) in excess of 160 grams per individual had to be deposited with the US Federal Reserve at Fort Knox, accepting US dollar banknotes (like deposit slips) in their place. In 1935 he subsequently devalued the US dollar to $35 per troy ounce.

ValueFirst IssuedCurrent WeightCurrent CompositionComments
One cent17932½ gramsCopper Plated Zinc (97.5%)In 1793 it was issued as 100% copper weighing 13.48 grams, then after 1795 10.89 grams, in 1856 mostly copper at 4.64 grams, in 1864 at 3.11 grams, then since 1983 it's been Copper Plated Zinc at 2½ grams
Silver half-dime
Copper and Nickel since 1866
17925 gramsCopper 75%
Nickel 25%
In 1866 the five cent nickel replaced the silver half-dime 1.125 grams of fine silver
Ten cent dime17922.268 gramsCopper 91.67%
Nickel 8.33%
In 1965 the ten cent dime replaced the silver dime that had been 2.25 grams of fine silver
25 cent quarter (two bits)17925.67 gramsCopper 91.67%
Nickel 8.33%
In 1965 the 25 cent quarter replaced the silver quarter that had been 5.625 grams of fine silver
50 cent half dollar179411.34 gramsCopper 91.67%
Nickel 8.33%
In 1965 the 50 cent half dollar reduced the silver half dollar that had been 90% silver, 10% copper, 11.25 grams of fine silver, from 90% to 40%. In 1971 it replaced it completely
One dollar17948.1 gramsCopper 88.5%
Zinc 6%
Manganese 3½%
Nickel 2%
In 2001 the Sacagawea dollar coin was issued with zero silver or gold. The earlier silver dollar coin up to 1934 that had been 22½ grams of fine silver and the gold dollar coin that had been 1.505 grams of fine gold were often hard to find in general circulation (except perhaps at Christmas time as presents)

Paper dollar notes in the US have always been far more popular to spend than silver dollar and gold dollar coins when people purchased goods, however in the early years there was no guarantee any private banknote would be honoured by another bank. Dollar notes printed by banks in other states (including by the government) could be discounted or refused.

In 1863 the National Banking Act brought in extra Federal control, a system of privately owned National Banks with their banknotes backed by bank holdings of US Treasury securities. Secondly the Congress, being short of silver and gold, authorized the printing of $450 million in US dollar notes (called "greenbacks") that were declared to be legal tender to pay the government's bills, and were eventually able to be redeemed for silver or gold coins at par after 1878. Thirdly in 1865 the Government imposed a 10% tax on banknotes issued by privately owned State Banks, causing them to eventually cease.

In 1913 the US Federal Reserve was established as a central banking system, a decentralised organisation of twelve districts: Boston (1-A), New York (2-B), Philadelphia (3-C), Cleveland (4-D), Richmond (5-E), Atlanta (6-F), Chicago (7-G), St. Louis (8-H), Minneapolis (9-I), Kansas City (10-J), Dallas (11-K), and San Francisco (12-L). The US Federal Reserve Notes issued by these twelve districts then steadily replaced all other US paper dollars, in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100.

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