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The Spanish silver peso was a very common coin consisting of "fine quality silver, assayed at .931 or .916," according to CoinWeek. Under some circumstances one peso coins, worth eight reales, would be cut into slivers to separate those reales from each other. While some sources downplay the coin cutting, saying it's held to have been more common than it truly was, it clearly happened.

How did people cut the coins? Did this require going to a blacksmith, or were they soft enough to snip or chop up with household tools?

4 reales

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    Some surviving examples don't seem to have nearly as clean edges as this one here. This seems to indicate people were cutting coins with household tools, since silver is after all much softer than steel or iron. – Semaphore Apr 6 at 7:13
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    Coin cutting was common enough that it entered American English - "Two bits" was slang for a US quarter dollar, and "four bits" slang for a half dollar. This slang is now archaic but was prevalent at least up to WWII (my father, born 1927, used it frequently). The Spanish real was legal tender in the US (along with a few other "reputable" foreign coins) until 1857, so it has a long history in this country. – Jurp Apr 6 at 13:24
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    @Jurp Then I suppose if you asked "How much is 8 bits?" in 1920, you'd probably be told "a dollar". But ask the same question in 2020 and you'd probably be told "a byte". :) – Tim Goodman Apr 6 at 15:39
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    @TimGoodman in the late 1960s, "How much is 8 bits?" --> about a dollar. ;-) – chux - Reinstate Monica Apr 6 at 20:42
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    TIL why they’re actually called ‘pieces of eight’, which I’d vaguely wondered about ever since first seeing whichever of the Pirates of the Caribbean films it is that uses them as a plot device. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 6 at 22:57
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The usual method was with a hammer and a cold chisel. A large stone would suffice as an anvil. Coins are fairly small and thin, and the silver coins of the period were quite soft, as you can see from the wear on the example in your picture. A blacksmith would be able to do this easily, as would almost anyone with basic metal-working skills and tools. Blacksmiths were more common in period than today, of course, and a higher proportion of people would have owned the necessary tools.

The division of coins into halves, quarters and eighths follows naturally from cutting them by hand. It's much easier to cut things into successive halves with reasonable accuracy than it is to cut tenths.

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    I successfully cut aluminium of comparable thickness with a wood chisel recently. Soft precious metals should be even easier. In fact hitting a sturdy knife ought do it – Chris H Apr 7 at 9:00
  • And having a cross design on one side provided convenient guidelines for cutting the coin into quarters. – dan04 Apr 7 at 13:39

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