Dollar has its roots in German valley

What is it that makes you think of something decades after you have not done so?

Back in the hot metal days when The Chronicle was located on North Main Street, they gave me an article to set it in type. It was about the dollar.

The name, it said, was derived from a German community that was using a coin named a thaler (thal means valley in German). The coin became known as a thaler, from its location. I don’t recall that it said how or why.

It spread and wound up in the very young U.S., there pronounced as “dollar.” But I wondered why. The colonists were (relatively) new and had come from England, which worked in penny, shilling and pound.

Why the change?

Marsha took my question to the Internet and got the answer: The King of England had forbidden the colonists to use English money. Reason enough: If his majesty said no, it went.

But the Internet did not say just when this happened, or how the colonists arrived at a monetary unit that had one whole and 100 parts. Nor did it account for things like the Indian-head penny or the buffalo nickel. These were common in my childhood, but how long has it been now since you saw one?

Neither did it account for words like nickel and dime. Quarter and half were clear enough. Nor did it account for why there was no word for the three-quarter step (which not only did not get a name, but did not get anything to prevent the undignified “six bits” for 75 cents.

Nor is there a 75-cent coin. But we’ve done well enough without it.

Do you remember when the size of paper money changed? Billfolds and wallets quickly followed suit. Early on, paper money was issued in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills. There are higher denominations, but I don’t speak that language.

Now, there is talk of eliminating the penny and I am curious as to how that will play out.

Checks may have reduced the volume of money in circulation; money itself may be slacking off in volume as people go more and more to electronic transactions.

And that could bring up a whole other discussion, which doesn’t quite lie in a retrospective of a piece of money.

When I first came to Okanogan County, there were silver dollars in circulation more generally than now. I gathered up a (small) batch and sent them to my sister in a Chicago suburb. She tied them up in a large white sock, in which she tied a huge knot and then proceeded to wow the big Chicago department store clerks by pulling the thing out, setting it on the counter with a thump, and proceeding to hand out silver dollars.

Rest in peace, former residents of the small valley in Bohemia. Your work lives on, and the end of the story has not been written yet.

But it will be followed, because for some reason, people find the subject of money to be fascinating.

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for The Chronicle. This is the 2,884th column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.


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