A History of US Currency – Part I

In 1660, the Massachusetts Bay colony began using a paper currency substitute. These promissory notes were not legal tender, but letters of intent to pay legal tender in the same way a cheque is an intention to pay. The people who traded with these official Massachusettes Colony I.O.U.’s were almost breaking the law laid down by the crown which prohibited the use of any non-British monies. Yet the need for a medium of exchange between the Bay colonists themselves, and between the British-American colonies and French-American colonies prompted the creations of notes like the one you see below.

photo source

“Intended Bills” are the first kind of Western print-money created in the Americas. These promissory notes were carried to financial institutions and exchanged for legal tender, in this case, 20 shillings, then destroyed. Very few notes like this remain and the ones that do are most likely counterfeit because people holding the would cash them in at their earliest convenience. Who doesn’t want to deposit, or cash in their cheque? However these notes are not what we would consider real money.

Before the printing of promissory notes, the colonies began minting their own silver coins. In 1652 despite the ban on such activity, the colonists minted coins like the one below. The following image is a reproduction of the 1652 large planchet Pine Tree Shilling from the Massachusettes Bay Colony. In 2012 a real Pine Tree Shilling sold for $12,650 in Baltimore if you have one, it may or may not be genuine, but it is worth having checked out!

Click image for larger version.  Name: pine-tree-shillingNoe 1.jpg  Views: 2507  Size: 84.1 KB  ID: 1171485
photo source

These shillings were not tied to the crown’s coffers and considered contraband by the English. Soon other colonies began using the Boston minted coins in combination with, and sometimes in place of English coins.

In 1776 the first post-colonial coins were minted. William Moulton of New Hampshire minted the following copper coins. They were about the size of a modern penny but made entirely of copper. This photo is of a copy, not an original coin.

US New Hampshire Copper (Counterfeit) 1776
photo source

These coins are exceedingly rare because they were never in circulation. If you have one it is probably a copy, especially as Chinese metalworkers are mass producing copies for novelty. The copies may or may not be marked with the word copy like the one photographed.

Without the resources to back a paper currency, the populous fell back to coins as a preferred means of transaction. They rejected pewter and copper coins in favor of silver, a coinage with intrinsic value. Just over 90 years later the young country was locked on the path of civil war. The first Confederate money was printed in 1861…

But that’s a story for another time. Until then, we’ll see you on Social Media!!

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