Welcome to the latest chapter in my “tour” of A Guide Book of United States Coins. In recent weeks I have been discussing colonial and colonial-related coins to the point where I have arrived on page 50. You can follow along in your own copy.
I start this chapter with Pitt tokens, made in two sizes popularly called farthings and halfpence, but neither one bears a denomination. These are typically made of brass or copper, bear on the obverse a portrait of William Pitt with a surrounding legend and a ship on the reverse, the last including the lettering AMERICA/THANKS TO THE FRIENDS OF LIBERTY AND TRADE. The reference is to the Stamp Act, detested by American colonists, that was enacted in England on March 22, 1765. This was just one of various attempts to tax colonists, the most famous in history being the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, unrelated to William Pitt, which precipitated the Boston Teaparty in the harbor of that city on December 6, 1773, when demonstrators, some disguised in Indian costumes, destroyed a shipment of tea that had arrived from the East India Company. Who would have ever guessed that today in 2015 the name would live on in its current political connections.
Returning to the tokens at hand, through the efforts of William Pitt, an English statesman, the Act of March 22, 1765, was repealed a year later on March 18, 1766. Pitt suggested that English control over the American colonies did not include the right of taxation. This action was admired by the American colonists. In Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where this column is being written, there is Stamp Act Island in Lake Wentworth, about two miles long and a nature preserve. This was named generations ago in order to remind local inhabitants of this detested legislation. In 1900 it was suggested that the name was archaic, no longer relevant, and the island should be given a different designation. However, that was not done and Stamp Act Island endures.
The tokens, probably intended as commemorative medalets, seem to have circulated at least to a small extent in the colonies, as evidenced by finds by metal detectorists in recent years. The smaller brass issues, called farthings, have a somewhat differently styled portrait and appear to have been struck on thicker planchets cast prior to striking.
Little is known concerning the circumstances of issue. Robert Vlack suggests that they may have been designed by Paul Revere, but who knows? Striking may have been accomplished by James Smither (or Smithers) of Philadelphia, a suggestion made in 1859 by Montroville W. Dickeson in The American Numismatic Manual, and in recent years seconded by Louis E. Jordan, the distinguished numismatic scholar in residence at Notre Dame University in Indiana (who maintains a website on colonial coins). Today on the numismatic market Pitt halfpennies are scarce not rare. Some are silvered often with some or much of the coating worn away. These sell for a slight premium. The farthing denomination is quite rare, seldom seen, and is not inexpensive. The Guide Book prices give approximate current market values.