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View Full Version : Why do characters in Victorian novels bite into coins?



Captain Howdy
11-02-2008, 07:15 PM
I've spent more time today trying to find the answer to this on the internet then I have been writing. Maybe I don't really need to know. I know it's cliched but my wealthy character has just gotten some information from a street urchin and gives the lad a sovereign and the boy bites into it. I've seen it a million times in movies set in Victorian London, but don't know why? Is it a superstition or are they actually testing to see if it's real?

dpaterso
11-02-2008, 07:21 PM
A couple of centuries ago, coins weren't alloys, almost pure copper, silver and gold coins were minted. Counterfeit coins would be contain harder metals. Could you actually leave an indentation in genuine coins with your teeth? I'm not sure, but that's what they'd have us believe with this biting thing.

-Derek

Captain Howdy
11-02-2008, 07:24 PM
A couple of centuries ago, coins weren't alloys, almost pure copper, silver and gold coins were minted. Counterfeit coins would be contain harder metals. Could you actually leave an indentation in genuine coins with your teeth? I'm not sure, but that's what they'd have us believe with this biting thing.

-Derek

does that mean they would bite the coin and then look to see if their teeth left bite marks?

dpaterso
11-02-2008, 07:27 PM
They might visually inspect, or they might feel their teeth sink into the theoretically softer metal.

-Derek

Maryn
11-02-2008, 07:31 PM
I don't know about copper and silver, but it's easy to put teeth marks in a gold coin.

A bite to a coin might also be enough for the biter to feel that it's too hard underneath, only coated with copper, silver, or gold over a much harder, and cheaper, metal or alloy.

Maryn, whose son bit a gold coin and still has it

Captain Howdy
11-02-2008, 07:41 PM
thanks for the answers folks - I feel better already - back to writing!

Kathie Freeman
11-02-2008, 07:48 PM
Many counterfeit coins were made from lead, which is very soft and easy to distinguish. Some were even made from wood and painted silver, hence the expression "Don't take any wooden nickels".

Sarpedon
11-02-2008, 08:09 PM
people would also lick them, but that is probably too gross for your average victorian novel.

Lead tastes sweet, which is why toddlers eat lead paint chips. I honestly don't know what gold tastes like, it sounds like an expensive taste to develop. (ah ha ha ha)

Lyra Jean
11-02-2008, 09:20 PM
I thought it was to make sure it wasn't foiled wrapped chocolate. :)

Clio
11-02-2008, 09:59 PM
Many counterfeit coins were made from lead, which is very soft and easy to distinguish.

Yep - this is the answer to the question. And if you want to know how I know Kathie is right, I can remember my grandma (product of Victorian parents) telling me that you bit into a coin to be sure it wasn't lead.

dpaterso
11-02-2008, 10:11 PM
Is that right? Gor blimey, the exact opposite of what I believed. I know nothing.

-Derek

Medievalist
11-02-2008, 10:30 PM
A couple of centuries ago, coins weren't alloys, almost pure copper, silver and gold coins were minted. Counterfeit coins would be contain harder metals. Could you actually leave an indentation in genuine coins with your teeth? I'm not sure, but that's what they'd have us believe with this biting thing.

-Derek

Yes, on gold sovereigns, and with effort on sterling, but mostly lead, tin and bronze would be dented.

You can still find them, the counterfeits, in large cities in England and Scotland, in people's junk or flea markets.

Smiling Ted
11-02-2008, 11:11 PM
Yes, on gold sovereigns, and with effort on sterling, but mostly lead, tin and bronze would be dented.

I don't think you can leave teeth marks in bronze.

Medievalist
11-02-2008, 11:33 PM
I don't think you can leave teeth marks in bronze.

Depending on how the alloy is made, you absolutely can. Modern bronze, not so much, but one of the ways to field test bronze for age that you find on a dig or with a metal detector even now is to bite it.

frimble3
11-03-2008, 05:53 AM
Makes sense to bite to see if it's lead, because I would imagine not many people would have the need to be testing gold coins. Especially a street urchin. Isn't a sovereign a lot to pay a kid for information?

Medievalist
11-03-2008, 06:07 AM
Makes sense to bite to see if it's lead, because I would imagine not many people would have the need to be testing gold coins. Especially a street urchin. Isn't a sovereign a lot to pay a kid for information?

A sovereign is quite a lot--but other industries with highly specialized skills and a wealthy clientele did in fact use them.

I've a gold sovereign that's a fake, of alloy (mixed metals) thinly plated with gold.

It's poorly made on one side--the text is wrong, but the face side is quite convincing, except for the teeth-marks on the edge.

Captain Howdy
11-03-2008, 06:11 AM
Makes sense to bite to see if it's lead, because I would imagine not many people would have the need to be testing gold coins. Especially a street urchin. Isn't a sovereign a lot to pay a kid for information?

I have no idea, but it's for my NaNo, just needed some down and dirty research. Thanks again everyone!

oh, actually, I watched Bleak House recently, and Lady Dedlock gave Joe a sovereign for showing her where Captain Hawdon lived and died, and where he was buried.