Two systems of reckoning are at present in use, which we will designate as the English and the decimal. The former is the older of the two, having been employed everywhere in Europe during the Middle Ages, while the latter is the one in common use at the present time. According to the English system the unit is the pound sterling, which is divided into twenty parts called shillings, each of which is further divided into twelve parts called pennies, and these again into four parts called farthings. A pound is, therefore, equal to twenty shillings or two hundred and forty pence or nine hundred and sixty farthings. The names applied to the unit and its subdivisions have been different in the different countries, and the weight and materials of the coins have changed many times. For example, the names common in Germany were pfund, schilling, and pfennig, and in France livre, sol or sou, and denier. It is probable that the English unit originally was a pound weight of silver, while at the present time it is fixed by law at 113.001 grains of pure gold.

Everywhere except in England this cumbrous system has been abandoned for the decimal, according to which the unit is divided into one hundred parts. In the United States, for example, we call our unit a dollar, and the hundredth part of it a cent; in Germany the name of the unit is a mark, and of the hundredth part a pfennig, the same name formerly applied to a two-hundred-and-fortieth part of the old unit. The corresponding names in France are franc for the unit and centime for the subdivision; in Italy lire and centesimo; in Austria krone and heller, formerly florin and kreutzer; and in Russia ruble and kopeck. The prevalence of the decimal system is due to its superior convenience. It is much easier to multiply and divide by ten and its multiples than by twelve and twenty.

In the determination of the size and name of its unit of reckoning each nation has been influenced by a variety of considerations, many of which have been peculiar to itself. It is difficult to change a system already in vogue, and consequently historical precedents have been often followed. In the United States the fact that a Spanish coin called a dollar was in general circulation at the time our monetary system was established and for many years previous to that date, doubtless was the determining factor in the choice of our unit. In Europe the so-called franc system is the most widely extended, partly on account of the dominant influence of France among the nations of the Latin race, and partly on account of the inherent merits of the system itself. In consequence of the very different circumstances by which the several nations have been influenced, a large number of units, however, are now in use. From the point of view of size they may be grouped into four main classes. In the first class belongs the English pound sterling, which is the largest of all, being equivalent to nearly five of our dollars. To the second class belong the United States and Canadian dollar, the Russian ruble, and the peso of several of the South American States. Of these our dollar may be regarded as typical. To the third class belong the old florin of Austria, the florin or gulden of Holland, and the krone of the Scandinavian countries and Denmark. As a type of this class may be taken the Dutch gulden, which is worth about forty cents of our money. In the fourth class belong the units of Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and the new unit of Austria-Hungary. Of these the French franc, worth about twenty cents of our money, may be taken as a type. It must be remembered that the units of the countries here classed together are not identical. Our dollar and the Russian ruble, for example, differ in value by more than twenty cents, but they have this in common, that, with the exception of the English, they, together with others of the same class, are the largest units now in use. The German mark and the French franc differ in value by about five cents, but they are both relatively small, while the Dutch gulden and the old Austrian florin, though not identical in value, in size range between the United States dollar and the French franc.

In the determination of the coins to be minted the size of the unit and the method of reckoning are important. As a rule the nations with small units have coins of lower value than those with large, the smallest representing one-hundredth part of the unit. The countries which use the franc system, for example, usually have a coin about equal in value to one-fifth of a cent. The other fractional coins which are most common wherever the decimal system is used represent values equal respectively to two, five, ten, twenty, or twenty-five and fifty times the smallest coin. In France and Belgium, for example, there are five-, ten-, twenty-, and fifty-centime pieces; in Germany one-, two-, five-, ten-, twenty-, and fifty-pfennig pieces; in Austria-Hungary one-, two-, five-, ten-, twenty-, and fifty-heller pieces; in the United States one-, two-, five-, ten-, twenty-five-, and fifty-cent pieces, etc., etc. Experience has shown that coins of these denominations are most convenient for purposes of reckoning and making change. In the English system the subdivisions are quite different, the coins in most common circulation being the half-penny, penny, sixpence (equal in value to six pennies), shilling (equal in value to twelve pennies), and one-, two-, two-and-a-half-, five-, and ten-shilling pieces. The large coins almost universally represent five, ten, twenty, and sometimes fifty times the value of the unit, paper money being used for higher denominations.