We talk to The Royal Mint’s Museum Director, Kevin Clancy, about the history of dates on coins.
When did dates first start appearing on coins?
“In Britain we start seeing coins with dates on them from the 16th century during the reign of Edward VII. The coins of his reign are the first to have in numerals the year when they were issued. Before this, coins would have certain marks on them – symbols such as crowns or anchors.”
What did the symbols mean?
“These marks related to a certain period of mintage, and there are government records to show which mintage these coins belong to. It’s like using a key to decipher a code. Matching the symbols would indicate the period that type of coin was issued. It may extend beyond a year or it might be a period of months.
“So the idea of issuing the coin and having some means of knowing the period of which it was issued seems to be important from a very early point in time.”
Why do we think that is?
“We don’t know for certain why people started doing this or thinking it was important, but we can deduce that it could be for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it could be to do with controlling or recording the amount of coins struck between a certain period, so it becomes a useful tool in other respects e.g. in the progress of a reign. One of the other ways a date is recorded is in regnal years, which means the year of the reign. For example, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, so in 2020 she celebrated 68 years on the throne, or 68 regnal years. Sometimes, the regnal years are recorded as well as the date, so from quite early on, coins became a way of marking time.
Secondly, coins were one of the only things that were issued regularly to the people. That sense of regularity could have given rise to dating on coins, as it’s a way of calendaring the passing of time.
Finally, coins were a way of communicating with the people. This is before notes and newspapers, so there were very few ways for the Crown to communicate with the nation visually. Coins were a primary way for the government to distribute imagery, and it was also how the state could portray itself. It projected imagery about the monarch, about what he or she looked like and symbols of the state.”
A bit like propaganda then?
“Sometimes propaganda, but really it’s about how the state is represented. Its imagery issued to the people in very large numbers from a very early time period in history. It’s the first form of mass communication with the people.”
So why are bullion coins dated?
“When a new market began to open up with bullion coins, it followed on that tradition. These days, coins almost look invalid without dates. Now, the year forms part of the fabric of what we think makes up a coin.”
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