A token solution to a seventeenth century dilemma

IF TODAY was a morning in London 350 years ago, and you wanted to catch up on the latest news, market information and gossip, rather than picking up a copy of City A.M. you would have gone to a coffee shop.

In coffee shops you would find the latest pamphlets and printed news, and met other patrons to discuss the issues of the day with. You might have found stock prices chalked up on the wall, or received a tip from a messenger who had run from another coffee house with news of a business deal.

The coffee that you drank in a seventeenth-century coffee house was imported from Turkey or the Levant, explaining why many coffee houses of the day had names like The Turk’s Head, or The Sultaness. Tea and chocolate, two other recently imported hot drinks, were also available, usually costing a penny – they were still relatively expensive luxuries. Despite the cost, a wide range of people visited coffee houses, including intellectuals and businessmen. Samuel Pepys, writing in his diary, mentions several he visited. In the Sultaness in Cornhill, he found “much pleasure… through the diversity of company and discourse.”

However, there was a problem which affected not just the coffee shops, but all the small retailers in England in the second half of the seventeenth-century: a severe shortage of small change. Between 1649 and 1672, there was no government provision of small change, which created huge difficulties in making small payments and in having enough low-denomination coins to give change. But businesses came up with a solution, by issuing their own money in the form of small tokens, usually worth half a penny or a farthing, which circulated locally alongside the official coinage.

This lack of small change in seventeenth-century England is one of the stories featured in the new Citi Money Gallery, where these London coffee house tokens are on display. These tiny objects tell us more than the story of a seventeenth-century shortage of small change. Because each token names the business and the street on which the business was based, they also tell us about the history of shopping in London.

The display in the gallery features tokens from opposite where the British Museum is today – Great Russell Street. From the tokens issued there, we know that on Russell Street in the 1660s there were lots of inns and coffee houses, as well as a grocer, a fruit seller, a flour seller, stationer and bookseller – rather similar to the businesses that are there today, 350 years later.

As you read your paper and drink your morning coffee, think back to the coffee drinkers and information exchange of the London of a few centuries ago, when it was just beginning to become the global city that it is today.

Catherine Eagleton is the curator of modern money at the British Museum. To find out more about this and other stories of money from the last 4,500 years, visit the free Citi Money Gallery at the British Museum. www.britishmuseum.org