silver standard

The silver standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed weight of silver. The silver standard was widespread until the 19th century, when it was replaced in most countries by the gold standard.

Ancient Greece

The first metal used as a currency was silver more than 4,000 years ago, when silver ingots were used in trade. During the heyday of the Athenian empire, the city's silver tetradrachm was the first coin to achieve "international standard" status in Mediterranean trade.


The dirham was a silver coin originally minted by the Persians. The Caliphates in the Islamic world adopted these coins, starting with Caliph Abd al-Malik (685–705). Silver remained the most common monetary metal used in ordinary transactions until the 20th century.


Beginning in 1515, silver coins were minted at the silver mines at Joachimsthal - Jáchymov (St. Joachim's Valley) in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic). Although formally called Guldengroschen, they became known as Joachimsthalers, then shortened to thaler. The coins were widely circulated, and became the model for silver thalers issued by other European countries. The word thaler became dollar in the English language.


Rich deposits of silver in the Spanish colonies of the New World allowed Spain to mint great quanities of silver coins. The Spanish dollar was a Spanish coin, the "real de a ocho" and later peso, worth eight reals (hence the nickname "pieces of eight"), which was widely circulated during the 18th century.

By the American Revolution in 1775, Spanish dollars were backed by paper money authorized by the individual colonies and the Continental Congress. In addition to the American dollar, the 8-real coin became the basis for the Chinese yuan.


The Indian rupee is derived from the Rūpaya, a silver coin introduced by Sher Shah Suri during his reign from 1540 to 1545. Valuation of the rupee based on its silver content had severe consequences in the nineteenth century, when the strongest economies in the world were on the gold standard. The discovery of vast silver deposits in the New World resulted in a decline in the value of silver relative to gold. The result was "the fall of the Rupee."

Great Britain

Great Britain's early use of the silver standard is still reflected in the name of its currency, the pound sterling, which traces its origins to before the Middle Ages (see Anglo-Saxon pound), when King Offa of Mercia introduced the silver penny, which copied the denarius of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire.

The early silver pennies were struck from fine silver (as pure as was available). However, in 1158, King Henry II introduced Tealby penny. English currency was almost exclusively silver until 1344, when the gold noble was put into circulation. However, silver remained the legal basis for sterling until 1816.

In 1663, a new gold coinage was introduced based on the 22 carat fine guinea. Fixed in weight at 44½ to the troy pound from 1670, this coin's value varied considerably until 1717, when it was fixed at 21 shillings (21/-, 1.05 pounds). However, this valuation overvalued gold relative to silver compared to other European countries. British merchants sent silver abroad in payments while exports were paid for with gold. As a consequence, silver flowed out of the country and gold flowed in, leading to a situation where Great Britain was effectively on a gold standard. In 1816, the gold standard was adopted officially, with the silver standard reduced to 66 shillings (66/-, 2.3 pounds), rendering silver coins a "token" issue (i.e., not containing their value in precious metal).

The economic power of Great Britain was such that its adoption of a gold standard put pressure on other countries to follow suit.


After its victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Germany extracted a huge indemnity from France of £200,000,000 in gold, and used it to join Britain on a gold standard. Germany's abandonment of the silver standard put further pressure on other countries to move to the gold standard.

United States

The United States adopted a silver standard based on the "Spanish milled dollar" in 1785. This was codified in the 1792 Mint and Coinage Act, and by the Federal Government's use of the "Bank of the United States" to hold its reserves, as well as establishing a fixed ratio of gold to the US dollar. This was, in effect, a derivative silver standard, since the bank was not required to keep silver to back all of its currency. This began a long series of attempts for America to create a bimetallic standard for the US Dollar, which would continue until the 1920s. Gold and silver coins were legal tender, including the Spanish real. Because of the huge debt taken on by the US Federal Government to finance the Revolutionary War, silver coins struck by the government left circulation, and in 1806 President Jefferson suspended the minting of silver coins.

The US Treasury was put on a strict hard money standard, doing business only in gold or silver coin as part of the Independent Treasury Act of 1848, which legally separated the accounts of the Federal Government from the banking system. However the fixed rate of gold to silver overvalued silver in relation to the demand for gold to trade or borrow from England. Following Gresham's law, silver poured into the US, which traded with other silver nations, and gold moved out. In 1853 the US reduced the silver weight of coins, to keep them in circulation, and in 1857 removed legal tender status from foreign coinage.

In 1857 the final crisis of the free banking era of international finance began, as American banks suspended payment in silver, rippling through the very young international financial system of central banks. In 1861 the US government suspended payment in gold and silver, effectively ending the attempts to form a silver standard basis for the dollar. Through the 1860–1871 period various attempts to resurrect bi-metallic standards were made, including one based on the gold and silver franc, however, with the rapid influx of silver from new deposits, the expectation of scarcity of silver ended.

The combination that produced economic stability was restriction of supply of new notes, a government monopoly on the issuance of notes directly and indirectly, a central bank and a single unit of value. As notes devalued, or silver ceased to circulate as a store of value, or there was a depression as governments, demanding specie as payment, drained the circulating medium out of the economy. At the same time there was a dramatically expanded need for credit, and large banks were being chartered in various states, including those in Japan by 1872. The need for stability in monetary affairs would produce a rapid acceptance of the gold standard in the period that followed.

The Fourth Coinage Act enacted by the United States Congress in 1873 embraced the gold standard and de-monetized silver. Western mining interests and others who wanted silver in circulation labeled this measure the "Crime of '73". For about five years, gold was the only metallic standard in the United States.

On June 4, 1963, president John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order No. 11110 that gave the Treasury Department the power "to issue silver certificates against any silver bullion, silver, or standard silver dollars in the Treasury." This order has never been acted upon, but has yet to be repealed.

See also


Search another word or see silver standardon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature