The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

Hop the Fifteenth - Things You Do Not Spend

Bridget Millmore, 'Funny Money' Eighteenth Century Homourous 'Evasions' as an Imaginative Way of Circumventing the Counterfeiting Curio

Love tokens, the main focus of Bridget's PhD research, are charming and very moving material expressions of a lost, intangible thread of personal feeling, and investigating these have lead her to discover a whole other, social, form. 'Evasions', also known as 'imitation regals' or 'medals', point out some interesting relationships between people and money in the 18th century. By letting the objects speak, we can understand this. Numismatists have long enjoyed paranumismatica - collecting 'fakes' in 'Black Museums,' so they clearly have some value. What is it?

These fakes are somewhat underinvestigated, falling between social, economic and cultural historians. Social historians have often commented upon the poor condition of small change in the eighteenth century, but have done little research as to why this might be the case. Many were made of poor quality material, and are worn, chipped and annonymised. Why?

Copper coins were not part of the Royal Mint's contract with the Treasury, and they minted them only as a favour to enable poorer workers to gain money. Neither was distribution part of their remit: this meant that in the provinces, access to money was limited. But with the rising demands of the nascent Industrial Revolution, more money was needed, and counterfeitters began to arise. There was also a problem of conversion - copper coins could not be converted back into gold, silver or paper money. So the currency became very stagnated.

Melting down coins to make counterfiet 'blanks,' and coins of private enterprise were some of the ways by which this problem was alleiviated. Eventually, the mint had to acknowledge that the private enterprise coins were legal tender, but the counterfiet coins still made up a large proportion of the tokens used.

'Evasions' are lightweight coppers, which were likely only made in the few years either side of 1800. But they were deliberately made to look worn, covered with fictitious dates, so they are very hard to date. In 1771, counterfeitting became a capital offence. So imitating regal coins with deliberate errors became the favoured way of evading this possibilty. Many of them were made in Birmingham, by those skilled in creating small metal objects and dies, and many were known as Brummegems. Often, they were thirty percent lighter than their full value, so could make a significant profit for their producers.

We are, according to Gombrich, programmed to recognise not likness, but unlikeness. It is this which is so charming about these evasions. The obverse portraits and images can change, but also the legends and words, with deliberately different names or misspellings. During the period of George the Third, for instance, we find coins depicting Alfred the Great...and William Shakespeare. On the reverse side of this coins, we find huge, often comic variations of the Britannia image. 'Bonny Girl', anyone?

Choosing different figureheads pokes fun at the monarch, but also suggests something much darker, some more derisive opinions upon George III. The different figures and images used - representations of Englishness such as Shakespeare, or non-monarchical figures who represent antipathy towards the crown - give an insight into the variety of late eighteenth century society and its relationship with money. These evasions can been seen as 'funny money': as a profitable, clever way of avoiding punishment, as whimsy, as critique of the government and king, and evidence of the skill of the craftsmen. They are also a response to a severe shortage of money. Without these fakes feeding it, the Industrial Revolution may well have stagnated, or gone another way. Even today, coins are used to express self and identity - we need only consider the independent currencies of Lewes and Stroud, and the counterfeitting problem in Newcastle. These fakes, then, are a powerful, and important, creative counter-culture, expressive of a disturbing social poverty, and have allowed us to develop the society and economic structure of today.

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