Since 2002, European merchants have made change in cents clad in copper-plated steel or an alloy called Nordic gold, as well as in euros, which are shiny, bimetal coins. But it wasn’t too long ago that travelers visiting the continent would return home with their pockets filled with loose change of seemingly countless sizes and denominations.

One can still experience that with a visit to Great Britain, where pence and pounds still change hands, even though the island nation is a member of the European Union. Historically, British subjects have paid for items with everything from tiny farthings to larger guineas and crowns.

The history of German coinage is no less rich. Collected coins include those minted by the German states prior to and immediately following the unification of the states into an empire in 1871; coins circulated between World Wars I and II; and the separate monetary systems that were established after 1949, when Germany was divided into eastern and western nations.

France’s modern-day decimal monetary system dates 1795, shortly after the French Revolution. Some gold francs of the early 1800s featured the bust of Napoleon, who ruled for a decade until 1814.

One of the world’s most storied coins is the Spanish real, which was Spain’s denomination at the height of the nation’s dominance as a world power in the 16th century. In fact, reales were so widespread in the New World that they were one of the most common forms of currency in the U.S colonies, and were traded as legal tender throughout the new nation in the early years of the United States.

The first coin to be called a Swiss franc was a silver, 10-batzen coin minted by the Bern Canton (state) in 1757. By the middle of the 19th century, some 860 varieties of coins were circulating in Switzerland, minted by Swiss Cantons, cities, and religious organizations, although the majority of the coins used for goods and services in the landlocked nation were foreign.

Of course, the history of coinage in the West all but began in Italy, where ancient Roman coins were struck beginning in roughly the year 500 BCE. By the Middle Ages, the florin,...

Meanwhile, the Papal States circulated the scudo, which was worth 100 baiocchi. In 1871 the states became a part of Italy, but the scudo had been scuttled in 1866, replaced by the Italian lira (equal to 100 centesimi).

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