After gold and silver, copper has the longest and most varied history as a monetary metal. Resistant to corrosion and malleable, copper was used by ancient peoples to make utensils, hammers, knives, and vessels of great beauty. As early as 5000 b.c. ancient Egyptians buried copper weapons and tools in graves for use in the afterlife. The Chinese epic Shu Ching makes references to the use of copper around 2500 b.c.
In the Mediterranean world, Cyprus was a major producer and the sole supplier of copper to the Romans, whose first metallic monetary system was based on a copper or bronze standard. The Romans called it aes cyprium, later shortened to cyprium. The English word “copper” stemmed from the word cuprum, a corrupted form of cyprium. The chemical symbol for copper, Cu, comes from the first two letters of the Latin name.
The Ancient Egyptians operated on a copper monetary standard. The standard unit of weight was a uten or deben of copper, and it was subsided into the kit or kedet. Some writers contend that the copper units were mainly used to value goods for barter, but others claim that copper rings, equal to multiples or fractions of the copper unit of weight circulated as a medium of exchange.
Copper or bronze remained the monetary standard of Rome until the end of the Roman Republic in 30 b.c. The Latin word for copper also denotes bronze, leaving some confusion about Rome’s monetary system. Bronze is copper alloyed with tin, and is a tougher metal than either copper or tin separately.
Copper had many practical uses for shaping weapons and tools, but ancient cultures never seemed to have invested copper with the religious significance that enveloped silver and particularly gold in a cloak of reverence. The Old Testament makes only one reference to copper (Ezra 8:27), but makes countless references to gold and silver, beginning in Genesis. Nevertheless, a certain Father Allouez, traveling through the area of Superior Bay (also called Allouez Bay) on Lake Superior in the 1660s observed:
There are often found beneath the waters of Lake Superior pieces of copper, well formed and of the weight of 20 pounds. I have seen them in the hands of Indians; and, as the latter are superstitious, they keep them as so many divinities, or as presents from the gods beneath.
(Del Mar, 1968)
Before the Spanish Conquest, copper was more valuable than gold in North America, Mexico, and Peru. In modern European history copper has clearly been a second-class monetary metal. In the sixteenth century Spain debased its silver currency with copper alloy. The currency was called vellon and by 1599 it was virtually pure copper. Copper money was sometimes called black money because when mixed with a bit of silver it blackened quickly. In the seventeenth century Sweden, which had vast copper deposits, adopted a copper monetary standard that lasted over a hundred years. During the Napoleonic era the French government tried to make copper legal tender in the settlement of debts in amounts up to one-fourth of the amount owed, but the effort fizzled. In August 1800 the government instructed the Bank of France to pay no more than one-twelfth of the government’s debt service in copper.
In the nineteenth century the demand for small change created a new demand for copper as a monetary metal. In 1797 England began issuing penny and twopenny coins made of copper. The first coinage legislation of the newly constituted United States authorized the coinage of cents and half cents made of copper. Copper coinage in the United States continued into the 1970s, when the high price of copper made pennies more valuable melted down and sold by weight.
The three metals that have served as money in the Western world are gold, silver, and copper. Although copper was not as valuable as gold or silver as a unit of weight, it filled a niche in the monetary system. A person planning to purchase a house would find it very difficult to transport the amount of copper needed to make the payment. For large commercial transactions, gold was ideal, because of its high value per unit of weight. For the purchase of a soft drink, however, the amount of gold needed would be a very small quantity, too small to be easily measured and handled. Silver was preferable for intermediate transactions, but for small retail transactions, copper was most suitable.