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The Thaler (or Taler or Tolar) was a silver coin used throughout Europe for almost four hundred years.
Its name lives on in various currencies as the dollar or tolar. Etymologically, "Thaler" is an abbreviation of "Joachimsthaler", a coin type from the city of Joachimsthal in Bohemia, where some of the first such coins were minted in 1518.
The roots and development of the Thaler-sized silver coin date back to the mid-1400s. As the fifteenth century drew to a close the state of much of Europe's coinage was quite poor because of repeated debasement induced by the costs of continual warfare, and by the incessant centuries-long loss of silver and gold in indirect one-sided trades importing spices and porcelain and silk and other fine cloths and exotic goods from India, Indonesia and the Far East. This continual debasement had reached a point that silver content in Groschen-type coins had dropped, in some cases, to less than five percent, making the coins of much less individual value than they had in the beginning.
Countering this trend, with the discovery and mining of silver deposits in Europe, Italy began the first tentative steps toward a large silver coinage with the introduction in 1472 of the lira tron in excess of six grams, a substantial increase over the, roughly, four-gram gros tournois of France.
In 1474 a nine gram lira was issued but it was in 1484 that Archduke Sigismund of Tyrol issued the first truly revolutionary silver coin, the half Guldengroschen of roughly 15½ grams. This was a very rare coin, almost a trial piece, but it did circulate so successfully that demand could not be met.
Finally, with the silver deposits—being mined at Schwaz—to work with and his mint at Hall, Sigismund issued, in 1486, large numbers of the first true Thaler-sized coin, the Guldengroschen (great gulden, being of silver but equal in value to a Goldgulden).
The Guldengroschen, nicknamed the guldiner, was an instant and unqualified success. Soon it was being copied widely by many states who had the necessary silver. The engravers, no less affected by the Renaissance than were other artists, began creating intricate and elaborate designs featuring the heraldic arms and standards of the minting state as well as brutally realistic, sometimes unflattering, depictions of the ruler (monarch).
Later German Thaler
17th Century Thaler coin from Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel with the traditional woodwose design on coins from the mints in the Harz MountainsThe zenith of Thaler minting occurred in the late 16th and 17th centuries with the so-called "multiple Thalers", often called Lösers in Germany.
The first were minted in Brunswick, and indeed the majority were struck there. Some of these coins reached colossal size, as much as sixteen normal thalers. The original reason for minting these colossal coins, some of which exceeded a full pound (over 450g) of silver and being over 12 cm in diameter, is uncertain. The name "löser" most likely was derived from a large gold coin minted in Hamburg called the Portugalöser, worth 10 ducats. Some of the silver löser reached this value, but not all. Eventually the term was applied to numerous similar coins worth more than a single Thaler. These coins are very rare, the larger ones often costing tens of thousands of dollars, and are highly sought after by serious collectors of Thalers. Few circulated in any real sense so they often remain in well-preserved condition.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the Thaler was used as the standard against which the various states' currencies could be valued. One standard was the Reichsthaler, which contained one ninth of a Cologne mark of silver. In 1754, the Conventionsthaler was introduced, containing one tenth of a Cologne mark of silver.
Prussia used a Thaler containing one fourteenth of a Cologne mark of silver. In 1837, the Prussian Thaler became part of a new currency used in southern Germany and the Rhineland, with the Gulden (equal to 4/7 Thaler) as the standard unit of account. By 1850, nearly all German states used this standard of Thaler, though with various different subdivisions.
In 1857, the Vereinsthaler was adopted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and through most of Germany. Vereinsthalers continued to be issued until 1872 in Germany and 1867 in Austria-Hungary. Maria Theresa thaler was still used during 20th century in Abyssinia and throughout Middle East.
In the Netherlands, the daalder and rijksdaalder circulated alongside the gulden at values of 1½ and 2½ gulden. The rijksdaalder depicted a lion; hence its Dutch name was leeuwendaler (German löwenthaler). These coins circulated in Romania and gave their name to the currencies of both Romania and Moldova, the leu. In the Netherlands, the name rijksdaalder lived on until the gulden was replaced by the euro in 2002. However, minting of the silver ducat recommenced in 1989 and continues to this day.
The Thaler was introduced and became the most widespread currency in Scandinavia under the name daler during the early 17th century. Various daler circulated, including the Danish rigsdaler, the Swedish riksdaler and the Norwegian speciedaler.
These daler circulated in Denmark and Sweden until 1873 when they were replaced by the Danish krone and Swedish krona, the new currencies introduced by the Scandinavian Monetary Union. Norway joined the Monetary Union and introduced the Norwegian krone in 1876.
As silver flooded into the European economy from domestic and overseas sources, Thalers and Thaler-sized coins were minted all over with equivalent coins such as the crown, daalder from which the English word dollar is derived, krona, and from 1497, the Spanish 8 reales piece was minted - a coin which would later become known in some parts of the world as the peso.
Indeed, in England the word dollar was in use for the Thaler for 200 years before the issue of the United States dollar, and until the half crown ceased to be used following decimalisation in 1971, the term "half a dollar" could be heard for "half a crown".
No currency currently in circulation is named thaler. Several, however, are acknowledging its legacy with their names: twenty-three currencies named dollar, used in countries including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and United States of America, as well as tolar (slovene for thaler), used in Slovenia until the end of 2006. Between 1992 and 1995, Belorussia planned to introduce Belorussian taler as a national currency.
In colloquial German, "Thaler" persisted with the meaning of "Five Marks" and at present "Five Euros", though this usage has no official base of any kind.