Canadian decimal coinage had a late start. It was only a little over 150 years ago that we had our own coinage that followed the similar Cents, 5 Cents, 10 Cents, etc. Before 1858 there was certainly lots of commerce going on, but the monetary system was a bit more confusing.
For most of the period of early Canada, people used coinage from the major wealthy european nations in trade. Great Britain, France, Spain (and colonies), and Portugal making up most. This sounds confusing, but folks at the time knew the ratio of value between one coin and another, and since all were relatively scarce in the colony it was worth the effort to do the math.
In the early 1800’s, Great Britain controlled Canada, but had a coin shortage of its own, and as a result of rapid expansion of the colony there was a critical shortage of small change for commerce in Canada. Due to these difficulties many merchants produced or imported mostly copper coins in either halfpenny or penny size. If they were able to produce or import these for less than they could pass them in commerce...it would of course result in a profit, and so there was a strong incentive to do so.
Copper pieces were also produced by banks, and the governments of PEI, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Upper Canada. The period most of these interesting copper pieces circulated was from the 1790’s to 1858. There are hundreds of different varieties to collect (and some neat varieties are being discovered all the time). In this brief introduction, let me share a few of my favorites...
The well known and highly sought after Molson token has to be near the top of my list. Dated 1837 this halfpenny sized token has the image of a distillery on one side, and a barrel on the other. Yes, Molson the company we all know for their beer actually produced their own coins. In fact the Molsons actually also started a bank that became quite successful and was eventually merged with the Bank of Montreal in 1925.
Another little treasure, also of local origin, is the Montreal & Lachine Railroad token. It was issued in 1847 (and used until the early 1860’s). It was produced for labourers to pay for one third class fare, most of these were working on the Lachine Canal. The token has the image of a mid 1800’s train on one side, and a beaver on the other. What also sets this token apart is the hole in the middle. The reason for this is to allow the conductor to string them on a wire as they were being collected. This scarce item is a classic!
The great thing about collecting colonial tokens is that most have an interesting story connecting them to early Canada. Truly history in your hands.