This holiday season, as you shop for gifts or dinner trimmings, spare a moment to think about the money you are spending. Not the amount, but the kind. Paper money is a relatively modern innnovation in the western world, being rooted in banknotes issued in the mid-1600s. But the coins you carry in your pocket or purse are in most ways similar to coins as they have existed throughout the ages, all the way down from the 6th century B.C. Varying in denomination, they allow for small change to be made as the leftover from larger purchases.
In one important way, however, our coins vary considerably from earlier ones. Early coins were minted under the theory that their face value should equal the value of their metal content. Thus they were typically made of gold or silver. For example, in early medieval England, 240 silver pennies could be minted from a pound of silver — thereby giving rise to the unit we call the English pound sterling . In contrast, most modern coins are minted with face values greatly exceeding the value of their metal content. Today in the U.S., the “melt value” is only 2 cents for a dime, 4 cents for a quarter, and 8 cents for a half dollar .
We have, in other words, switched from a theory of content value to a theory of token value when it comes to coins. This switch occurred surprisingly recently, with 1964 being the last year that the U.S. struck silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars.
The late switch is surprising for how long it took to come about, because the theory of content value had repeatedly proved problematic when it came to ensuring a supply of coins. Over a span of centuries, governments were frequently forced to debase their coinage to relieve shortages. Debasement typically involved reducing the silver content of smaller-denomination coins. The reasons for most of the shortages are controversial (e.g., compare  with ), but one factor was that as fluctuations in prices occurred, at some point the value of a coin’s metal content would exceed its face value. At that point coins would be melted down, disappearing from circulation .
A 17th Century Shortage
One of the historical shortages affords genealogical connections. By the mid-17th century a persistent shortage of small denomination coins had developed in England. This had been a long time in coming. As early as the time of Queen Elizabeth, who reigned 1558-1603, patterns had been drawn up for the issue of copper coins but nothing had come of it . Coin shortages became particularly acute during the English Civil War (1643-1651), when minting ceased .
By 1648, shortages had become so severe that merchants took matters into their own hands and began issuing coin-like tokens of their own, a practice that continued in most places until 1672. The tokens were given as change, and were often honored locally in other establishments, at least over an adjoining street or two. In theory they could be exchanged for official royal coinage, although the extent to which that actually occurred is unclear .
Three of our known ancestors or near-ancestors were involved in the issuing of trade tokens, as they were called, each valued at a farthing (a quarter of a penny). In Norwich, co. Norfolk, England, on the eastern side of the country, ancestor Anne Youngs (d. 1681), a grocer, issued a token under her married name Anne Munford. It showed her name as “ANN MVNFORD” with The Grocer’s Arms on one side, and on the reverse, “IN NORWICH – A.M. [her initials]”. A photograph appears at https://norfolktokenproject.wordpress.com/portfolio/williamson-174. Anne is a direct ancestor through the Bowers, Thomas, Jordan, and Pleasants families .
Also in Norwich, Anne’s son George Munford, who had been admitted a freeman of the city in 1653, issued his own grocer’s token. On one side it showed “GEORGE MYNFORD” with a merchant’s mark, and on the other, “OF NORWICH 1657” with The Grocer’s Arms . A photograph appears at https://norfolktokenproject.wordpress.com/portfolio/williamson-175.
Further west, John Samm (d. aft 1695) issued a token in Clifton, co. Bedford, in 1664. It showed his wife’s initial as “H”, and displayed the Drapers’ Arms , indicating he was a draper (i.e., a cloth or clothing merchant). John is a direct ancestor through the Bowers, Stayman, and Stake families . At least for the moment, a photograph appears at https://www.copperbark.com/products/bedfordshire-28-clifton-john-samm-1664.
Although these three ancestors and near-ancestors were either grocers or drapers, trade tokens were not limited to those occupations. Williamson  listed nearly a hundred livelihoods represented by tokens.
Even after trade tokens began to be issued, the English government dithered. In 1649, the Council of State recorded, “The business of farthing tokens is to be considered to-morrow” — an interesting phrasing given that it implied abandonment of the theory of content value. In 1650, the Council declared, “Farthings ought to be issued.” A year after that, as if to stengthen their resolve, a report was presented to the Council giving reasons, which were summarized by a later writer :
The report commenced by stating that money is the public means to set a price upon all things between man and man, and experience hath sufficiently proved in all ages that small money is so needful to the poorer sort that all nations have endeavoured to have it. It continues to recommend small pieces as ministering of frugality, whereupon men can have a farthing’s worth and are not constrained to buy more of anything than they stand in need of, their feeding being from hand to mouth; it recommends it on the ground of charity, saying that many are deprived of alms for want of farthings and half-farthings, for many would give a farthing who are not disposed to give a penny or twopence, or to lose time in staying to change money whereby they may contract a noisome smell or the disease of the poor. 
Further discussion took place in 1652, but it was not until 1672 that a royal proclamation was finally issued for the minting of copper farthings and halfpence. At the same time the use of private tokens was outlawed, which was obeyed with two notable exceptions where usage continued for a few more years (i.e., the city of Chester, and Ireland). When those practices ended, the time of the 17th-century trade token had passed.
Today it is possible to collect trade tokens. A “good fine” example of the John Samm farthing came up for auction in 2012, with an expected sale price of £40-50 . A “very fine” example at the aforementioned http://www.copperbark.com site is currently priced at £100. A George Munford 1657 farthing came up for auction in 2013 , and an Anne Munford farthing sold in 2015 .
A Final Comment
I’ll end with one last comment about those coins in your pocket. As I wrote at the head of this article, most modern coins have face values greatly exceeding the value of their metal content. The penny is a notable exception. Its metal is worth 8 tenths of a cent, only a small difference in value . After accounting for all expenses, it already costs more than one cent to manufacture a new penny. Ongoing debates over the coin’s future and its possible elimination are eerily reminiscent of the protracted deliberations of the Council of State over the farthing nearly 400 years ago, right down to the possible effect on charities .
Oh, and about those farthings? Britain hasn’t seen a new one since 1956, and they are no longer legal tender.
Descent from the ancestors mentioned in this posting, and what is known of their own forebears, is detailed in The Omnibus Ancestry (available for download at Lulu). Full references are given there.
 Information retrieved from http://www.coinflation.com/coins/basemetal_calc.php (2017).
 Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pound_sterling#Anglo-Saxon (2017).
 Sargent, T.J., & Velde, F.R. (2002). The Big Problem of Small Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Williamson, G.C. (1889). Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century. London: Elliot Stock.
 Boles, D.B. (2017). The Omnibus Ancestry: 619 Documented American and European Lines. Available for download through Lulu.
 Information retrieved from https://www.dnw.co.uk/media/auction_catalogues/Tokens%2011%20Apr%2012.pdf (2017).
 Information retrieved from https://www.dnw.co.uk/media/auction_catalogues/Tokens%202%20Oct%2013.pdf (2017).
 Information retrieved from http://rarecoinsandtokens.co.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=166&products_id=856 (2017).
 Information retrieved from https://www.thespruce.com/the-penny-debate-768872 (2017).
 Information retrieved from http://www.lse.ac.uk/Economic-History/Assets/Documents/WorkingPapers/Economic-History/2008/WP107.pdf (2017).
 Information retrieved from http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~fordingtondorset/Files2/Dorchestertradetoken.html (2017).
Picture credit: Modification of “17th century trade token of Thomas Wood, 1652“, by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, photographer Chris Edbury, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary programme run by the United Kingdom government to record the increasing numbers of small finds of archaeological interest found by members of the public. The scheme started in 1997 and now covers most of England and Wales. Finds are published at https://finds.org.uk.