One of the more familiar coins from our early colonial and statehood period and one whose name is linked to tales of pirates and plunder is the Spanish 8 reales, better known as a “piece of eight”.
When Spanish explorers discovered silver in the new world, they set about establishing mints to produce coinage virtually at the mines entrance. Early production was very crude whereas the silver, after being alloyed to its’ proper fineness, was rolled the same as one would roll cookie dough. The mint master would then cut off pieces referred to as cobs, adjust the weight by trimming the blank and when the weight was correct, stamp the blank with dies. The resultant coin is very crude in appearance, and very susceptible to being altered after the fact. Since coins of that era were supposed to have their full value in a precious metal, removing some silver from these coins would be hard to detect and would result in the coin being undervalued. This also makes them easy to counterfeit, so anyone wishing to collect coins of this type should exercise caution when making a purchase.
Beginning in the 1730’s coins at the Spanish colonial mints were produced in the more typical way, that is utilizing a dies to strike premade blanks that were of a consistent size and fineness. The design on this new coin was of 2 orbs representing globe like images showing the old world and the new world under a crown and over a representation of the Strait of Gibraltar and flanked on each side by pillars (the Pillars of Hercules), hence giving it the nickname “pillar dollars”. Included in the legend around the edge on the two sides would be “PHILIP-V-D-G-HISPN-ET-IND-REX.” Literal translation is “Philip 5th (who was king at that time) by the grace of God, King of Spain and the Indies“. Also included would be the assayers and mint masters initials, the denomination (8R for 8 reales) and initials for the mint that struck the coin, since several mints existed in what is now Central and South America. An example of this mint mark is a small letter “o” over the top of a large “M” which stands for Mexico City. These coins incorporated an “anti clipping” feature of crude milling on the edge of the coin which would show if someone tried to clip some silver from the coin.
The coins were redesigned in the 1770’s by removing the pillar design and replacing it with the profile portrait of the ruling kings of Spain, successively Carlos (Charles) III, Carlos (Charles) IV and Ferdinand VII. Striking of these coins effectively ended in the 1820’s.
These coins were widely accepted in trade throughout the Colonies as well as the early period after the creation of the United States (they actually had legal tender status until the mid 1850’s). They also were accepted throughout the world because of their weight and consistency of purity. Many found their way to the Orient where merchants in those countries freely accepted them in trade. It is not uncommon to find examples of a piece of 8 with Chinese characters stamped on them showing the mark of the person verifying their value. These stamps are referred to as “chop marks”.
Pillar style pieces of 8 are more valuable and sell in the range of $150 and up, whereas the portrait style start at around $50, with chop marked specimens bringing slightly less.