History of Coins in Costa Rica
By Manuel Chacón Hidalgo, Numismatic Curator, MBCCR
Images on coins may be studied and interpreted to find out more about the background at the time of their creation and circulation. The political changes, as well as given economic circumstances, made for very peculiar coins in Costa Rica, from 1821 to1850. These coins were aimed at constructing the ideals of each political project. Thus, different ruling groups during this period attempted to impose their state views, crystallized in the so-called “national symbols,” such as the coat of arms, which was typically engraved on coins.
Images on Coins According to Period
- The Colonial Period
During the Colonial period, Costa Rica, a colony of the Spanish Empire, was subjected to the Spanish monetary system. Throughout the three hundred years of Spanish rule in the American continent, coins reinforced Spanish domain. Beginning in the mid 18th century, coins displayed the image of the king, which was renewed with every new king.
- 1825-1847 period
Once Costa Rica declared its independence from Spain, the organization of the monetary system was one of the first concerns of the burgeoning American states. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, provinces that had belonged to the Kingdom of Guatemala, became independent in 1821 and joined together in 1824 to form the Federal Republic, which issued its own coin. In 1824, a “provisional mint” was established in Costa Rica. Known as “Ingenio San José de los Horcones,” it was located in Alajuela, and headed by Mateo Urandurraga. The first coins, minted in 1825, were for the State of Costa Rica, part of the Federal Republic of Central America.
In 1828, the State of Costa Rica established the “Casa de la Moneda,” or mint, by decree. Located in San José, it came to substitute the “Ingenio de los Horcones” provisional mint. The new institution issued coins of better quality than those from 1825. The monetary system issued coins in two metals: gold (of higher value), in denominations of escudos and onzas, and silver (of lesser denominations, used for smaller transactions), called reales. Operations at the “Casa de Moneda of San José” were irregular, closing down several times during its existence, until it was permanently shut down in 1949.
Costa Rica disbanded from the Federal Republic of Central America in 1838, during the administration of Braulio Carrillo, and the State regained its sovereignty. The Federation symbols, among them, the flag, the coat of arms, and the coins, represented Costa Rica’s subjugation to this institution, so one of Costa Rica’s first actions was establishing guidelines to issue money with symbols representing the State of Costa Rica, which included a shining star.
In November, 1841, due to currency shortage and poor quality of circulating currency, the Carrillo administration ordered that all foreign silver currency in circulation worth ½, 1, 2, 4, and 8 reales be counterstamped with a star. It was the first attempt at minting State coins to ensure their quality and make them clearly identifiable as belonging to the State of Costa Rica.
In April, 1842, General Francisco Morazán, the last president of the now defunct Federal Republic of Central America, staged a coup d’état, deposing Braulio Carrillo and declaring himself Head of State of Costa Rica. One of his first decrees — number 5 — reestablished the symbols, weapons, and currency of the Federal Republic, thus eliminating those established by Braulio Carrillo. This decision was an attempt at reestablishing the Federation from Costa Rican territory.
After Francisco Morazán was overthrown in September,1842, José María Alfaro became provisional head of state. Costa Rica remained cautious until 1847, carefully observing the political processes happening in Central America. The idea of participating in a possible Central American union slowly evolved, which explains the fact that coins with the symbols of the Federal Republic continued to be in circulation, as well as an obverse countermark on hammered currency of the Federation volcano symbol and the words “Repub. Del Cent. De Amer.”, and the engraving of a tree on its reverse.
The first commemorative coin in Costa Rica was issued in 1847, issued to celebrate the “reforms” of 1846 (the coup d’état that deposed José Rafael Gallegos on June 7) and the Constitution of 1847. The 1 real coin showed a coffee plant on its obverse, with the words “Reforms proclaimed on June 7, 1846” circumscribed around it; the “face of a young indian” was engraved on the reverse, with the words “Costa Rica at the time of its January 21, 1847 Constitution.”
On August 31, 1848, during the José María Castro Madriz administration, a decree was issued to discard any possibility of rejoining the Federal Republic of Central America. Castro Madriz ordered that a flag and coat of arms be created. These symbols were stamped on Costa Rican coins starting in 1850. The coat of arms was the basis for the current one.
- 1848-1863 Period
Costa Rica was proclaimed a sovereign republic on August 31, 1848, during the José María Castro Madriz administration, rejecting the possibility of every belonging to the Federal Republic of Central America. Among the symbols adopted were the flag and coat of arms that Castro Madriz decreed to be made, which were then stamped on coins of the Republic starting in 1850. ½ onza, ½ escudo, 1 and 2 escudo gold coins were minted with the new coat of arms on the obverse. The reverse had the portrait of an indigenous woman. Silver coins were minted in one-sixteenth, one-eighth, and one-fourth peso coins; the obverse has an engraving of a holm oak tree on a patterned background, to symbolize freedom.
Gold and silver coins with the symbols of the federation were also minted in 1849 and 1850, due to the need to provide the economy with circulating currency for transactions, while the new dies to mint new currency were shipped from abroad. Silver coins issued in 1849 worth 2 reales, much like the 1 and ½ real coins minted previously, were countermarked that same year with the image of a lion inside a circle that read “Authorized by the Government.”
- 1864-1896 Period
Coins were converted to the decimal system in 1863; the peso was established as the monetary unit, subdivided into 100 parts called centavos. Coins essentially continued to be struck in two metals: gold and silver. The design on gold coins, at first, and then on silver coins starting in the 1880s, would come to characterize Costa Rican coins to this day. The obverse shows the coat of arms of the Republic of Costa Rica, while the obverse shows the denomination within a crown.
- 1896-1949 Period
The monetary reform of 1896 established the gold standard and the colón, as a monetary unit, divided into one hundred parts, called céntimos. After the reform, the material used to mint coins was slowly replaced with materials that were less costly than gold and silver, which had been used since the 19th century. Although coins were issued during the first three decades of the 20th century in fractions of colón (2, 5, 10, 25 y 50 céntimos) and multiples of the same (2, 5, 10, and 20 colones), the 1 colón coin was not minted until 1935, in a material combining copper and nickel. The same 1 colón design was used until 1978.
- 1950-2015 Period
The Central Bank of Costa Rica has issued coins in several denominations, materials, designs and sizes since its foundation in 1950. Many of the changes have been a result of economic crises that have led to the disappearance of some denominations. From 1950 to 1980, the Central Bank minted 5, 10, 25 and 50 céntimo coins, as well as 1 colón and 2 colón coins. Due to the 1980 economic crisis, the rapid devaluation of the colón, and inflation in the last decades, low denomination coins, such as the 5, 10, 25, and 50 céntimo denominations, as well as the 1 and 2 colón coin, are no longer in circulation. Similarly, the 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 colón banknotes have been replaced by coins. Currently, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 colón coins, minted in a bronze Al-aluminum alloy , are in circulation.
The engravings on coins allow us to study the different types of political organization of the State of Costa Rica from 1821 to 1850, be it as a member of the Federal Republic of Central America (1824-1838), as an independent state (1838-1848), or as a republic, starting in 1848. The engraving on the obverse of Costa Rican coins have remained the same since 1850, with small variations on the coat of arms, which do not detract from the original design. Quite possibly, this change is due to the fact that, despite the political crises in Costa Rica, the republican model has never been in question.
How to cite this article
Chacón Hidalgo Manuel. (2003). Historia de la Moneda de Costa Rica. San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos del Banco Central. Available at: link