During the year I spent in Madison as a Mosse fellow, I was lucky to have the opportunity to immerse myself in an area of research completely new to me—Environmental History. Although this is a well-established field, I had not been exposed to some of its most fundamental questions, such as: How were human realities in the past shaped by nature? How did human actors historically influence their environment? These questions have changed the way I now research and understand my dissertation topic—the history of non-governmental monies. Specifically, my work is now driven by the question: What is the relationship between the history of coinage production and the landscape where it was minted and distributed?
In the twenty-first century, we take for granted that all legal economic activity is overseen by the state and regulated through its institutions and representatives, including the manufacture and distribution of money. But what seems so clear and natural to us today was not always a historical given. My research focuses on the phenomena of non-governmental money in early modern England. Non-governmental money in these cases refers to actual coins that were produced by private people, cities, and firms; these monies then entered into circulation for everyday use, like buying bread or paying rent. One of the most interesting waves of private minting took place at the end of the eighteenth century (1787-1797). Throughout this decade, coins were minted in significant numbers by industrialists—some of the most powerful figures in the era.
How did private money gain enough authority to be used without a national or monarchal sovereignty to back it up? This is a crucial question because money as a social construct is always related in some way to trust. A hint to how the industrialist coins of the late eighteenth century gained trust lies in one of phenomenon’s name—Provincial Coinage (also known as “provincial tokens” and “Conder tokens”). These coins were heavily based on local economies; they were minted to be used in those specific localities where the authority of their issuers would be recognized.
In many cases, images of the contemporaneous local landscape appeared on the coins. England was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and the images that appeared on the coins reflected the ways industrialization had affected different localities. The landscape was increasingly changing with new factories, furnaces, and mines, each of which would become a common motif that issuers chose to depict on coins. Understanding this changing industrial landscape is key to revealing how this money operated and was understood by contemporaries.
Private currencies appeared in England in this period as a result of an on-going shortage in small denominational coinage (both today and then called “small change”). This problem, known among economists as “The Big Problem of Small Change,” was not a problem unique to England. Governments across Europe that differed greatly in their nature and operated in a variety of social and political contexts struggled to figure out how to deal with question of supply and demand, manufacturing and value.
In England, the shortage of small change became particularly acute at the end of the eighteenth century. This was due to the fact that in 1775 the royal mint ceased minting copper coinage for close to forty years because it was deemed not profitable and hard to distribute. Copper coinage was of the lowest value for daily transactions. At the time, England was at the pinnacle of the evolving capitalist economy. A working culture of hired labor meant that more and more workers received salaries on a regular basis in small denominational coinage. Moreover, consumerism developed at a fierce pace and all sectors of society wanted to take part in the new purchasing dynamic. People needed coinage for all of these basic daily needs as well as their imagined ones. For the last quarter of the eighteenth century, despite the demand, the royal mint did not resume minting of copper coinage. Simultaneously, regulations on paper money prohibited issuing them at small sums, thus making them irrelevant for salaries of industrial workers. Money necessary for daily life was hard to come by.
The small change shortage caused distress for the population at large, greatly affecting their day to day lives. At the same time, employers outside of London struggled to gather enough money to pay salaries. Some of the largest employers at the time were the same industrialists at the forefront of the industrial revolution. They were the first to mint provincial coinage in order to pay their workers. The coins were mainly minted out of copper and set at a value of farthing (a quarter penny) to one penny. There is evidence that people received salaries in provincial coins and used it for their daily economic transactions. By the end of the decade, there were several dozen issuers throughout Britain minting substantial amounts of coinage.
Although employees probably did not have a choice other than to receive their salary in provincial copper coins, questions of the coinages’ authority and acceptance still rose. There are examples of employees rejecting coinage because they believed the value of a coin was set too high compared to its metallic content. One issuer of coinage, the iron industrialist John Wilkinson (1728-1808), lowered the face value of the coinage and only then was it accepted by his employees and the merchants in his area. Another aspect of coinage acceptance relates to questions of distribution and circulation. While most coins seem to have only been used in specific localities, a handful of coins gained a more universal value—meaning there is evidence that they were used far from the locality for which they were produced. People would only accept this money outside its locality if they knew who was behind it and trusted that others in their area would accept it as well.
For today’s historians, of course, the coins hold more than financial value. Browsing through the provincial coin catalogue is almost like browsing through a guide book to the Industrial Revolution. Many images on the coins, displayed in the catalogue, included factories, furnaces and looms, and they were sometimes depicted with working men. Large-scale architectural projects appeared on other coins, such as the canal system and the cast Iron Bridge in Shropshire, both were considered groundbreaking.
These images have mostly been understood to be commercials for the industrialists issuing them, each depicting his own enterprise. But did the men and women who received this coinage understand these images as commercials alone? What was their relationship with the images engraved on the coins and the metal from which it was minted?
The men and women who received the provincial coinage as salaries and used it daily were not foreign to this industrial landscape. They lived within its changing sphere, many times in manufacturing towns that developed adjacent to factories. Their work was transforming the landscape both above and beneath the ground, as they were hired to activate the machinery, as well as mine and build the new architectural wonders of the era. Many issuers of provincial coins chose images that reflected exactly these new additions to local landscapes that became local symbols. This is how they chose to enhance the coinages’ authority, along with their own. While it is unlikely that all of these meanings crossed through the minds of historical actors while buying something at the market, understanding the cultural significance of these images can teach something about daily life during the Industrial Revolution. It opens up a window to questions about local economies and local economic symbols, about power relations mediated through copper means of exchange, and about money as medium. These remain the questions at the heart of my research.
 Thomas J. Sargent and François R. Velde, The Big Problem of Small Change 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
 David W. Dykes, Coinage and Currency in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Provincial Coinage (London: Spink, 2011). Jim Newmark, “Tokens as documents of the Industrial Revolution.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 129-142. George A. Selgin, Good Money: Birmingham button makers, the royal mint, and the beginnings of modern coinage, 1775-1821 (University of Michigan Press, 2008).
 Dalton, Richard, and Samuel Henry Hamer, The Provincial Token-Coinage of the 18th Century (Quarterman Publications, 1977).
Idit Ben Or is a PhD student in History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research focuses on money in early modern England, a time when much economic activity was locally based and daily economic life was dependent on money that was coined and printed by local actors, in addition to monarchal coinage. Idit’s research examines how the government and the public viewed local money, its authority, value, usages, as well as its sociocultural meanings. She combines economic theory and practice, history of daily life and material culture, to evoke questions on the connection between money, an object found in every pocket, and broader sociocultural and economic concerns. She is the recipient of the Mosse Fellowship (2014), Azrieli Fellowship (2017-2020) and is a member of the “Materials of Change” research group at the Mandel Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in the Humanities and Jewish Studies.