Predecessor of US dollar minted 500 years ago in Jáchymov

Jáchymovský tolar

This week marks exactly 500 years since the minting of the first Joachimsthaler coins, the predecessors of the US dollar. The first thalers or tolars, as they were nicknamed by Czechs, were minted on January 9,1520 in the West Bohemian town of Jáchymov. The popular silver coins soon spread across the Hapsburg Empire and into the New World, where they eventually became the official currency.

Stephan Schlick,  photo: Public Domain
The origin of the Joachimsthaler coins is linked to the discovery of large deposits of silver on the Czech side of the Krušné hory mountains in the second decade of the 16th century. Most of the area, known as Joachimsthal, was owned by the Counts von Schlick, one of the richest noble families in Bohemia.

By law, precious metals contained in the soil belonged to the King of Bohemia, but the Schlicks managed to get an exception, explains Jan Nedvěd from the Royal Mint House museum in Jáchymov.

“The Schlicks had strived for a long time to establish a mint house in Joachimsthal. They needed the money to finance their mining expenses and to pay off their debts to the Nuremberg bankers.

“Exporting metallurgic silver from the Czech kingdom was prohibited at the time, that’s why they needed the coins. In the end, they were granted official permission from the Czech Land Diet to mint the thaler. It happened on 9 January 1520.”

While the first coins bore the image of Joachim, the local patron of miners, on the front side, and the Bohemian lion on the reverse, the subsequent versions paid homage to the ruling kings.

“At the time, silver was also mined on the Saxon part of the Krušné Hory Mountains and these large silver coins were commonly named after the place of their origin. This coin was called Saint Joachimsthaler or thaler, in short.

“And because the influx of Schlick coins on the Central European market was pretty significant, in just a few decades, the thaler became a general term for a certain type of coins.”

Photo: Classical Numismatic Group,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Indeed, the Joachimsthalers were the first large, high-purity silver coins circulated on a large scale on the European precious metals market. It is estimated that by the mid-16th century, some 12 million thalers minted in the Ore Mountains had spread across Europe.

As the thaler spread across the continent and beyond, local rulers renamed the coins in their own languages. But it was the Dutch leeuwendaler, or daler for short, that gave the US currency its name.

It was first brought to New Amsterdam by Dutch colonists and quickly spread throughout the country. In 1792, it became the official currency of the United States.

Centuries after its silver deposits ran dry, the town of Jáchymov started to write a much darker chapter in its history. In the 20th century, it became known for its uranium mines, where thousands of political prisoners were used as forced labour.