Discussion at many online sites asserts that it was a common custom (e.g., in medieval or Roman times) to pay for a purchase with a coin and have the coin broken apart, with part of it returned as change. In particular, the most common sub-claim is that the Spanish "pieces of eight" refers to a coin designed to be broken into eight pieces (which seems like it might be a misunderstanding of its value equated to 8 reales).

Often times a photo of one or more broken coins is presented as evidence. However, I've never seen any of these claims backed up references, citations, academic papers, historical documents on the practice, etc. Examples:

  • Numista: Thread on Medieval Cut Pennies
  • Colonial Williamsburg: "Sometimes, though, a coin was cut into smaller pieces to be used as payment or change, as needed."
  • CoinWeek: "The most widely circulated of these was the piece of eight, which, when supplies of smaller denomination coins dwindled were chopped or cut into smaller pieces to make change."
  • Sea Research Society: Counter to the above, claims, "Despite stories to the contrary, pieces-of-eight were not routinely cut up by merchants to make change...", again with no citation.

So, was cutting up coins for change ever customary in the past? And/or were coins ever designed for that use-case? Are there academic/historical studies attesting to those facts?


1 Answer 1


According to Cut Bronze Coins in the Ancient Near East in Actes Du XIe Congrès International de Numismatique:

The cutting in half of bronze coins to make change is a well known phenomenon in ancient times. In the West, the practice began in Sicily late in the 3rd century B.C. with the halving of the Poseidon/trident bronzes of Hieron II of Syracuse (c.274-216 B.C.).

There is also a catalog and photographs (page 339) of cut coins of the West Indies in the August 1920 The Numismatist, Volume 33

Snippet of catalogue showing a picture (click to enlarge)

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    Is there any evidence that the coins were cut to make change specifically? I know that in some places, coins were cut in order to prevent them from being used.
    – Laurel
    Mar 26, 2019 at 17:52
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    Hmmm. Your first reference is to a whole 348-page book (in French), yes? Can you narrow it down more to specific article/page or something? Mar 27, 2019 at 0:41
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    And the second reference (like images referenced in the OP) seems pretty hazy, e.g., "Some cataloguers attribute these to the English occupation, others to a period under the Dutch, and assign varying values to them." So it would be great if we had more clarity: Cut by merchant to make change in transaction? Cut and re-stamped by government for new circulation? Etc. Mar 27, 2019 at 0:42
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    @DanielR.Collins The first reference is not the whole book, it is the specific article by Robert D. Leonard Jr. that starts on page 363. For the second reference, start at the beginning of the article on page 337 (according to original numbering). It says "for the purpose of providing pieces of small denominations". So these cut coins were island-government authorized cutting to have small denominations.
    – DavePhD
    Mar 27, 2019 at 12:08
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    @DanielR.Collins I don't know of any evidence that the cutting occurred at the point of sale. Definitely not in the second reference, and I only have snippet view of the first reference.
    – DavePhD
    Mar 29, 2019 at 12:53

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