Imagine that every time you received any money you had to test each piece to see if it was really worth as much as you were told it was worth. In the 17th century one did not accept a silver or gold coin on face value. Although very few coins of gold or silver (called specie coins) ever circulated in the early Maryland colony, those that did represented a range of European countries and many different denominations and ages of English coins. What really counted was how much precious metal was actually in a coin. It was not uncommon for unscrupulous people to shave a bit of precious metal off the coin’s circumference before it was passed along. We see evidence of the method used to keep this from happening in our modern coins (dime, quarter etc.) that have milling around their outer edges. Because of the habit of coin shaving, coin scales and coin weights were used to check the weight of coins taken in trade.
Coin weights are small, generally square brass weights which had on one side the face of the coin which they represented and often, on the other side, the mark of the maker of the coin weight. We have found several coin weights in our excavations at Historic St. Mary’s City and similar weights have been found on 17th-century sites in Virginia and Maryland. The most common places where these coin weights were made appears to have been Antwerp and Nuremberg.
Coins of any kind were extremely rare in 17th-century Maryland. In fact, specie coins were so rare that the colony declared tobacco as the legal tender of the colony. Rather than calculate prices and debts in pounds sterling, pounds of tobacco were the means of exchange.
We don’t suggest that people carried tobacco around with them the way we carry money today. Instead, almost everything was bought with credit and tobacco promissory notes that circulated much like our modern currency.
The economy and riches existed primarily on paper. Lord Baltimore tried to introduce his own coinage in the 1650s but it appears to have been no great success. Instead, the colony’s economy continued to be based on tobacco – the source of all wealth and the medium of exchange.