Mast Stepping: The Schooner Penny

Over the centuries, minted metal coins have been used to purchase everything from slaves to bread. The power such a small object possesses in society is incredible and often goes way beyond a simple transaction in a shop, market stall or even international banking.

The American Liberty Coronet Coin.
The American Liberty Coronet Coin.

The recent discovery of an early 19th century American penny (circa 1816 – 1839, exact date yet to be determined) aboard a recovered schooner in downtown Toronto by ASI staff is evidence of the power a simple penny can have on the human psyche. The coin was placed where the mast fits into the keel during a process called “stepping the mast” or “mast stepping”. It is placed there by the shipbuilder for several reasons; a ceremonial act that has been done for over 2,000 years.

The Romans picked up on the idea by early Greeks who placed a coin in the foundation of religious temples. The Romans did it to pay the mythical ferryman Charon (also a Greek mythological figure) to deliver the bodies of lost seamen across the River Styx to the underworld in the event the ship sank.

In later centuries, and still done today, the placing of the coin under the mast was more to ensure favourable winds and profitable trade. It marked the point in a ship’s construction where it went from being a simple structure to a dynamic, sea-going vessel carrying real people off to war, in search of trade and commerce or to find a new life in a distant land. To ensure success, in whatever endevour, that powerful little coin had to be under that mast.

Written By: Doug Todd 


2013. Kelly, Jason. “Mast Stepping: A Mariner’s Tradition.” Navy Live. Accessed on July 2, 2015:

2007. Carlson, Deborah N. “Mast-Step Coins Among the Romans.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol. 36, Issue 2.