In the 1970s there was a shortage of coins in Italy. Demand outstripped the small coinage minted by the Italian government. The shortage persisted, which caused merchants to pay more for coins than their face value. With the acute coin shortage, enterprising department stores introduced colored plastic discs that circulated only in their stores. Smaller merchants offered candy and other small value items from their stores since they could not make change for a customer’s purchase. Telephone tokens were also popular and filled the void created by the small denomination coins.
To address this shortage in coins, Italian banks introduced the mini-assegni (mini-checks) in denominations of 50 to 350 Lire in increments of 50 Lire. These mini-checks looked like monopoly money to replace the small denomination coins that were in short supply. They were introduced between 1975 and 1978 to relieve the shortage of coins in circulation. It was not until 1978 that the Italian government produced coins in large enough quantities to meet consumer demand. In a very short period of time after the coins shortage disappeared, the mini-assegni disappeared from the market when the banks stopped issuing them. The 30 odd banks that issued the mini-assegni profited shamelessly since a large number of the notes were never redeemed.
So the question remains – what caused the shortage? Italy suffered a chronic shortage of coins since they were made of stainless steel. Italian 50 Lire and 100 Lire coins were made of an alloy of iron, chromium and nickel. While the Italian currency was declining in value, the metal value surpassed their nominal value and enterprising citizens melted down the coins for profit causing the crisis.
The Italian government was slow to react to the crisis. In 1977 Italy introduced the aluminum-bronze 200 lire coins and the bi-metallic 500 lire coin followed in 1982 with the value in Braille for the very first time. In 1978 there were 835 different types of mini-assegni in circulation for a total value of 200 Billion Lire when the Italian coin crisis ended.