Today marks 50 years since decimal currency went "into circulation" in New Zealand - both in the economy and in Delia MacKay's tummy.

After years of preparation, July 10, 1967 was the day we began the switch to dollars and cents, from the more complex system of pounds, shillings and pence we had inherited from Britain.

As a 3-year-old in Hastings, Delia MacKay (nee Lissette), was delighted when her father, a bus driver, brought home one of the shiny, new 2c pieces for her treasure box.

Delia MacKay (nee Lissette), who swallowed one of the new 2c coins. Photo / Herald files
Delia MacKay (nee Lissette), who swallowed one of the new 2c coins. Photo / Herald files

"I thought it was a lolly and promptly swallowed it," said MacKay, now a 53-year-old office manager and mother of two teenagers, who lives at West Harbour in Auckland.

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"No one was concerned it was going to do me any harm, especially as I hadn't choked on it initially.

"It did turn up - in the usual way.

"My mother kept it for a few years but it's long gone now.

The joke in the local paper was that Hastings had the first decimal coin "in circulation". The story also made the front page of the Herald and was reported on television.

The 2c coin introduced on July 10, 1967.
The 2c coin introduced on July 10, 1967.

MacKay's gulp was one of few hiccups in Finance Minister Robert Muldoon's decimal currency plans.

Another mishap was the stamping of "Bahama Islands" instead of "New Zealand" on around 100,000 2c coins by the Royal Mint in London.

The 2c coins mistakenly stamped with
The 2c coins mistakenly stamped with "Bahama Islands" instead of "New Zealand". Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand

But in 1966 a furore had broken out - one that matched the much later row over changing the New Zealand flag - after the Government-approved designs for the new coins were leaked.

New Zealand's $1 note as it looked at the changeover to decimal currency on July 10, 1967. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand
New Zealand's $1 note as it looked at the changeover to decimal currency on July 10, 1967. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand
The Government-approved design for the 1c coin that was later rejected after a public outcry. Photo / Herald files
The Government-approved design for the 1c coin that was later rejected after a public outcry. Photo / Herald files

Including a contemplative rugby player on the 20c coin, a horse-riding musterer on the 50 and an oversized Southern Cross on the 1c, the designs were slated as "corny", "tasteless", "banal", "childish" and "uninspired" by Aucklanders asked by the Herald.

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"If they are intended to make us a laughing stock overseas, they are just right," said a commercial artist whose name the paper did not print.

The wrangle, which dragged on for months, even earned Muldoon, a parliamentary-undersecretary, a slap from Prime Minister Keith Holyoake.

Muldoon had reportedly mused in Melbourne that Kiwis "did not particularly care" what the new coins looked like, as long as they had enough of them.

Holyoake, having received a steady stream of letters mostly attacking the originally-approved designs, retorted: "Known public reaction does not support such a statement."

Labour leader Norman Kirk weighed in, saying the undersecretary's remark indicated the growth in National of the "Muldoon doctrine", that the Government was no longer the people's servant, it was their master.

New Zealand's $1 note as it looked at the changeover to decimal currency on July 10, 1967. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand
New Zealand's $1 note as it looked at the changeover to decimal currency on July 10, 1967. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand
The one pound note featured Captain James Cook from 1940. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand
The one pound note featured Captain James Cook from 1940. Photo / Reserve Bank of New Zealand

The designs for the new decimal notes were kept secret until June 1967, against the Government's wishes a year earlier, but turned out to be uncontentious.

Despite fears of widespread public confusion, the Herald was able to write of day one of the new era: "New Zealanders take decimals in their stride; scarcely a quibble."

Q and A - Decimal currency

Q - Why did New Zealand switch to decimal currency?

A - To simplify our money and to follow the world trend. Australia had switched the year before.

Q - How is the decimal system simpler?

A - It has 100 cents in the dollar. The old system had 12 pence to the shilling and 240 pence to the pound.

Q - Was the changeover difficult?

A - It was complex, given that 1c was equal to 1.2 pennies. Some prices were rounded up, others down. Tens of thousands of mechanical cash registers and adding machines had to be converted. Banks were closed on the Thursday and Friday before the Monday changeover to allow them to prepare.

Q - How was the new currency decided upon?

A - The "tui", "kiwi", "zeal", "fern" and "Cook" were among names floated before the Government opted for the dollar. The paper notes were designed by a New Zealand committee in consultation with the Reserve Bank's London printers. The choosing of the new coins was, by contrast, a mess. It began with a design competition in 1964, and progressed to multiple rounds of designs being rejected and the Government-approved models being leaked and lampooned before yet more consultation led to a final decision.

Q - How is the anniversary being marked?

A - The Reserve Bank Museum in Wellington, see rbnzmuseum.govt.nz, is exhibiting displays of the "Mr Dollar" TV ads that explained decimal currency, footage of the first distribution to banks before the launch day, and other decimal currency stories.