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The Coinage of 1858: Canada’s First Decimal Coins

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

We tend to take our coinage for granted today, giving little thought to the origins of our money. Most people would be surprised to learn that there was no such thing as a Canadian dime or quarter 160 years ago. Instead of the nickels and dollars that now occupy our pockets, Canada’s money consisted of a hodgepodge of foreign coins and privately issued tokens from England, France, Spain, the U.S., and local merchants.

It was not until 1857 that a decimal system was adopted for the Province of Canada, introduced to facilitate trade with our Southern neighbours. The new system was based on the dollar and denominated in cents, five cents, ten cents, and twenty cents. There were no twenty five cents, fifty cents, or silver dollars issued back then. Quarters and half dollars were first struck in 1870, while silver dollars made their first appearance in circulation in 1935.

Province of Canada officials ordered new coins from London’s Royal Mint in 1858. The head side (obverse) of all four denominations featured the portrait of a young Queen Victoria with CANADA below and VICTORIA DEI GRATIA REGINA around the borders. The reverses of the five, ten, and twenty cent coins displayed the denomination and date centred below a crown and between a wreath of maple. The cent had a slightly different design with a serpentine motif of 16 maple leaves encircling the entire reverse.

Mintages for the 1858 coins ranged from 730,000 twenty cent pieces to 1.5 million cents. The coins were issued through banks, but the totals supplied were insufficient to fully meet the commercial demands of all Canadians. Still, it was a start.

The coins of 1858 are all moderately available today. A well-worn five cent can be obtained for as little as $15. The cents and twenty cents coins are scarcer, but can still be found for around $50. Of course, mint condition 1858 specimens or interesting varieties can command far greater prices, reaching into the thousands of dollars.

As might reasonably be expected, the 1858 Province of Canada coins are highly collectible and always in demand. Anyone trying to put together a first-year set will require an example of each 1858 coin, ensuring their continued popularity.


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