The practice of counterfeiting money is as old as money itself.
Archaeologists have discovered counterfeit examples of coins produced in Lydia, a Roman province said to be the locale of the first metallic coinage, dating back to the 7th century BC.
Today, we tend to think of counterfeiters as individuals who mass produce paper money, usually in large denominations – $20 or higher.
But until relatively recently, nearly all counterfeit money came in coin form. This was because until relatively recently nearly all money came in coin form, and was known as “hard money” because it contained a commodity such as gold or silver which gave it intrinsic value.
A short 1884 article in the New York Times highlighted just how valuable even small coins – albeit those made of silver – were 130 years ago.
MARLBOROUGH, N.Y. – Counterfeit silver dollars, quarters and ten-cent pieces are being circulated in a number of the Hudson River counties. The quarter dollars and dimes are said to be very good imitations of genuine money. It is said that ticket agents on the line of the Hudson River Railroad have been told to scrutinize carefully all silver offered in payment for tickets. It is believed that the counterfeits were first put in circulation about three weeks ago.
Today it seems difficult to imagine someone going to the difficulty of attempting to counterfeit a dime, never mind working hard enough at it to do it well.
While the Times didn’t specify the method of counterfeiting used, most likely the bogus coins were produced through the substitution of a base metals such as copper, tin and zinc in place of silver. The coins would then be plated with silver.
In a bi-metallic monetary system such as that employed by the US prior to 1933, a coin’s worth is supposed to be more or less tied to the value of the metal it contains; debasing ten-cent pieces, quarters and silver dollars in this manner allowed counterfeiters to, in effect, “manufacture money.”
Producing a dime with only, say, 2 cents worth of silver and a negligible amount of base metals would mean an 8-cent profit every time a counterfeiter could pass off a fake 10-cent piece as the real thing and realize its “full value.”
Not surprisingly, the crime of counterfeiting was considered especially egregious, due in no small part to the potential impact on the economy.
It was considered a capital crime well into the 18th century in England and the US, and in other parts of the world long afterward.
(Top: Counterfeit 1861 US dime. Note that the silver plating is worn and the poor quality of the lettering.)