How Was The “Pieces of Eight” Coin Cut into Bits?
Have you ever wondered why the Spanish silver dollar was called pieces of eight?
The Spanish colonial empire controlled the massive Potosí silver mine in Bolivia, which produced most of the silver in the world. Here the Spanish minted a silver dollar, which became known as “pieces of eight” in the English-speaking world. The name came from the fact that one Spanish silver dollar (Peso) was worth eight reals.
It is easy to think about the silver dollar as the base unit. However, it was the Spanish real which was the currency and which got simply minted in ½ , 1, 2, 4 and 8-real denominations. It is simply the 8-real which got so widely used around the world that it became the currency people talk about and why you see it pop up in pirate movies.
For anyone interested in number systems, the dominations are interesting to observe. Money was not ten-based because that was impractical to work with. If you got a pizza, you don’t cut it into 10 pieces. That is really hard to do. You cut it into 2, 4 or 8 pieces. If somebody was selling say eggs, grain, or anything else, they would give some price for say eight eggs or a loaf of bread. What if you could not afford the whole bread or didn’t need whole bread? Maybe you just want half or a quarter. That is easy to cut, and it helps that your money can be divided in similar fashion. Nobody is going to ask for 1/5 of a loaf of bread.
The extra benefit is that it allowed people to literally cut coins into pieces. People would indeed cut Spanish silver dollars into halves, quarters, or bits. A bit is what the English would call a real. Hence, a silver dollar was made up of 8 bits and 2 bits thus corresponded to a quarter of a dollar (2/8 is 1/4).
I want to clarify one confusion I had when reading up on this topic: The Spanish did not make the coin in a special way that made it easier to cut it into eight pieces. It is just that with tools it is easier to measure up and cut something in half repeatedly than say cutting a coin into 10 identical pieces. Again, think of how you can cut a…