When it comes to paper money in the West, the foremost innovator was the United States, as John Kenneth Galbraith points out:
If the history of commercial banking belongs to the Italians and of central banking to the British, that of paper money issued by a central government belongs indubitably to the Americans. (Galbraith, p. 45)
The reason the American colonies had to experiment with paper money was simple: “official” money in the American Colonies was gold and silver coins, and there was a perennial shortage of such coins.
The American colonies had no rich deposits of gold of silver, unlike the Spanish in Latin America. There were no mines, and, to make things worse, there no mints allowed in North America. And, to top it all off, the British government forbade the colonies from chartering banks, “Thus bank notes, the obvious alternative to government notes, were excluded.” (Galbraith, p. 47). Colonists used whatever coins they could get their hands on, most of which came from the Spanish colonies to the south. In particular, this meant the Spanish Peso de Ocho Reales, or Piece of Eight: the world’s first global currency. This was also the origin of the famed dollar $ign. Foreign coins would continue to circulate as money in the United States until after the Civil War.
The curious origin of the dollar symbol (BBC)
Since the colonies couldn’t mint their own coins, if you wanted to get your hands on gold and silver coins, you had no other choice but to trade with the outside world. If you didn’t trade with the outside world, then getting sufficient coins was really difficult, severely limiting internal trade. This wasn’t accidental—the British, like all colonial powers, wanted the colonies to be sources of raw materials for their domestic manufacturing industries, and not to be economically self-sufficient.
To help alleviate the ongoing shortage of previous metal coins, local authorities might have passed laws to restrict the export of gold and silver–what we would today call capital controls—but such laws were expressly forbidden by the British government. In the mercantilist world of the 1600-1700s, the strength of a nation lay in the amount of gold and silver stashed away in its vaults—probably a holdover from the time when gold and silver paid for mercenaries in Europe before the era of professional standing armies.
And so there was a perennial, ongoing shortage of currency for transactions. This was an anchor around the leg of the domestic economy of the colonies.
…the British colonies in North America suffered from a constant shortage of all coins. The mercantile policies then in vogue in London sought to increase the amount of gold and silver money in Britain and to do whatever was practical in order to prohibit its export, even to its own colonies.
Beginning in 1695, Britain forbade the export of specie to anywhere in the world, including to its own colonies. As a result, the American colonies were forced to use foreign silver coins rather than British pounds, shillings, and pence, and they found the greatest supply of coins in the neighboring Spanish colony of Mexico, which operated one of the world’s largest mints.
Because of the great wealth produced in Mexico and Peru, Spanish coins became the most commonly accepted currency in the world…The most common Spanish coin in use in the British colonies in 1776 was the pillar dollar, so named because the obverse side showed the Eastern and Western hemispheres with a large column on either side.
In Spanish imperial iconography, the columns represented the Pillars of Hercules, or the narrow strait separating Spain from Morocco and connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. A banner hanging from the columns bore the words plus ultra, meaning “more beyond.” The Spanish authorities began issuing this coin almost as soon as they opened the mint in Mexico with the intent of publicizing the discovery or America, which was the plus ultra, the land out beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
Some people say that the modern dollar sign is derived from this pillar dollar. According to this explanation, the two parallel lines represent the columns and the S stands for the shape of the banner hanging from them. Whether the sign was inspired by this coin or not, the pillar dollar can certainly be called the first American silver dollar. (Weatherford, pp. 117-118)
Another thing the colonists did to get around this chronic shortage of metal coins was barter, which led to settling accounts with all sorts of things other than previous metal coins. They might settle accounts, for example, with so-called “county pay” or “country money,” typically cash crops: cod, tobacco, rice, grain, cattle, indigo, whiskey, brandy–whatever was at hand. During 1775 in North Carolina as many as seventeen different forms of money were declared to be legal tender.
Without the convenience of money, colonists resorted to many less-efficient methods of trading. Barter, of course, was common, particularly in rural areas, but individuals often had to accept goods that they did not particularly need or want only because they had no other way to complete a transaction. They accepted these goods hoping to pass them on in future trades. Some items, most famously tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, worked well in this way and became commodity monies directly or as backing for warehouse receipts. Various other types of warehouse receipts, bills of exchange against deposits in London, and individuals’ promissory notes might also circulate as money. In addition, shopkeepers and employers sometimes issued “shop notes,” a type of scrip—often in small denominations—redeemable at a specific store.
Out of necessity, merchants and wealthy individuals frequently extended credit to others. In an economy that depended heavily on barter, however, one could end up holding debts against many individuals and across a broad array of goods. People naturally hoped to net out some of these debts, but this is extremely difficult under barter. Fortunately, colonial creditors could tally debts in British pounds or colonial currencies even if these currencies were not readily available. In this way, money acted as a unit of account. By attaching a value to things, money accommodated the netting out of debts.
Paper Money and Inflation in Colonial America (Cleveland Fed)
One of the most popular substitutes in North America could be obtained domestically: beads made from marine sea shells called wampum, which were used extensively in the tribute economy of the the Iroquois nations. Wampum is a member of the huge amount of currencies all over the globe that were made from sea shells, including cowrie shells and dentalium. Since these were regarded as valuable by Native American tribes, they had the added advantage of being able to be traded for animal pelts bagged by the Native Americans (who soon stripped the forest bare in order to get more wampum—and hence more prestige). In 1664 Pieter Stuyvesant arranged a loan in wampum worth over 5,000 guilders for paying the wages of workers constructing the New York citadel. They were even subject to a form of counterfeiting:
The first substitute was taken over from the the Indians. From New England to Virginia in the first years of settlement, the wampum or shells used by the Indians became the accepted small coinage. In Massachusetts in 1641, it was made legal tender, subject to some limits as to the size of the transaction, at the rate of six shells to the penny.
However, within a generation or two it began to lose favor. The shells came in two denominations, black and white, the first being double the value of the second. It required by small skill and a smaller amount of dye to convert the lower denomination of currency into the higher.
Also, the acceptability of wampum depended on its being redeemed by the Indians in pelts. The Indians, in effect, were the central bankers for the wampum monetary system, and beaver pelts were the reserve currency into which the wampum could be converted. This convertibility sustained the purchasing power of the shells.
As the seventeenth century passed and settlement expanded, the beavers receded to the evermore distant forests and streams. Pelts ceased to be available; wampum ceased, accordingly, to be convertible and thus, in line with expectation, it lost in purchasing power. Soon it disappeared from circulation except as small change. (Galbraith, pp. 47-48)
Another very popular domestic currency in use was tobacco leaf. In fact, tobacco’s reign as currency in America lasted longer than gold’s:
Tobacco, although regionally more restricted, was far more important than wampum. It came into use as money in Virginia a dozen years after the first permanent settlement in Jamestown in 1607. Twenty-three years later, in 1642, it was made legal tender by the General Assembly of the colony by the interestingly inverse device of outlawing payments that called for payment in gold or silver.
The use of tobacco money survived in Virginia for nearly two centuries and in Maryland for a century and a half – in both cases until the Constitution made money solely the concern of the Federal government. The gold standard, by the common calculation, lasted from 1879 until the cancellation of the final attenuated version by Richard Nixon in 1971. Viewing the whole span of American history, tobacco, though more confined as to region, had nearly twice as long a run as gold. (Galbraith, p. 48)
And such practices might be where Adam Smith came up with his erroneous notion of primitive barter economies, which continues to plague economics and economic history to this day.
Early American Colonists Had a Cash Problem. Here’s How They Solved It (Time)
This illustrates another dictum about money: barter tends to occur in fully monetized market economies where the medium of exchange is in short supply. This is because internal exchanges in market economies take the form spot transactions among anonymous competing strangers. Anthropologists now know that pre-monetary economies were embedded in social relations and took the forms of reciprocity, redistribution, householding, and ceremonial exchange, rather than constant efforts to “truck, barter and exchange.” Anthropologists have never found an example of a barter economy anywhere in the world (e.g. “I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow”).
People in North America and other remote regions were using things like cod, tobacco, grain, brandy, and shells to settle accounts, sure—but these were fully monetized economies that just happened to have a chronic shortage of coins! To get around this, certain items which were particularly valuable because they could be traded with the outside world—like cod in Newfoundland, or tobacco in Virginia, were used to settle accounts. Or, because some items were particularly valuable inside the community, they could be used in subsequent trades as a medium of exchange (like iron nails in Scotland, another Smith example). One might include the “cigarette money” used in prisons in this category. A contemporary example is the use of spruce tips in remote Alaskan towns: spruce tips can only be harvested during a few weeks in the spring and are used in all sorts of exported products (beer, tea, soap, etc.) that are traded with the outside world.
A year after moving to Skagway, Alaska, John Sasfai walked into Skagway Brewing Co. and ordered the signature Spruce Tip Blonde Ale. But instead of pulling out his wallet, the guide for Klondike Tours put a sack of spruce tips on the bar to pay his tab. That’s because in this town, the bounty he foraged from trees near Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park serves as a currency.
This village, with a year-round population just shy of 1,000, is notably remote – it’s about 100 miles north of Juneau and 800 miles south-east of Anchorage by car. And though stampeders established Skagway during the late-19th-Century gold rush, these days the nuggets of value are plucked from the forest, not panned or mined. While spruce tips – the buds that develop on the ends of spruce tree branches – are only good for cash at Skagway Brewing Co., bartering with spruce tips for food, firewood or coffee (which are delivered by barge once a week) is not uncommon.
The Alaska town where money grows on trees (BBC)
However, in all of Smith’s cases, prices were denominated in standard units of account, but people settled their debts in whatever was at hand. But none of these things were the origin of prices and money, as Smith incorrectly claimed.
To start, with Adam Smith’s error as to the two most generally quoted instances of the use of commodities as money in modern times, namely that of nails in a Scotch village and that of dried cod in Newfoundland, have already been exposed [as fraudulent] … and it is curious how, in the face of the evidently correct explanation … Adam Smith’s mistake has been perpetuated.
In the Scotch village the dealers sold materials and food to the nail makers, and bought from them the finished nails the value of which was charged off against the debt. The use of money was as well known to the fishers who frequented the coasts and banks of Newfoundland as it is to us, but no metal currency was used simply because it was not wanted.
In the early days of the Newfoundland fishing industry there was no permanent European population; the fishers went there for the fishing season only, and those who were not fishers were traders who bought the dried fish and sold to the fishers their daily supplies. The latter sold their catch to the traders at the market price in pounds, shillings and pence, and obtained in return a credit on their books, with which they paid for their supplies. Balances due by the traders were paid for by drafts on England or France.
A moment’s reflection shows that a staple commodity could not be used as money, because ex hypothesi, the medium of exchange is equally receivable by all members of the community. Thus if the fishers paid for their supplies in cod, the traders would equally have to pay for their cod in cod, an obvious absurdity. In both these instances in which Adam Smith believes that he has discovered a tangible currency, he has, in fact, merely found—credit.
Then again as regards the various colonial laws, making corn, tobacco, etc., receivable in payment of debt and taxes, these commodities were never a medium of exchange in the economic sense of a commodity, in terms of which the value of all other things is measured. They were to be taken at their market price in money. Nor is there, as far as I know, any warrant for the assumption usually made that the commodities thus made receivable were a general medium of exchange in any sense of the words. The laws merely put into the hands of debtors a method of liberating themselves in case of necessity, in the absence of other more usual means. But it is not to be supposed that such a necessity was of frequent occurrence, except, perhaps in country districts far from a town and without easy means of communication.
What is money? (Alfred Mitchell-Innes)
All of this experience showed colonists that multiple things could be used as money, if needed. There was no more magic to a gold standard, then to a cowrie standard, or a tobacco standard, a grain standard, or a cattle standard, or anything else for that matter. This would prove to be an instrumental lesson in the creation of paper money in the colonies.
Galbraith, for his part, gives an alternative explanation for the chronic lack of precious metals in the American colonies:
Many countries or communities had gold and silver in comparative abundance without mines. Venice, Genoa, Bruges had no Mother Lode (Nor today does Hong Kong or Singapore.) While the colonists were required to pay in hard coin for what they brought from Britain, they also had products – tobacco, pelts, ships, shipping services – for which British merchants would have been willing, and were quite free, to expend gold and silver.
Much more plausibly, the shortage of hard money in the colonies was another manifestation of Gresham. From the very beginning the colonists experimented with substitutes for metal. The substitutes, being less well regarded than gold or silver, were passed on to others and this were kept in circulation. The good gold or silver was kept by those receiving it or used for those purchases, including those in the mother country, for which the substitutes were unacceptable. (p. 47)
So the colonists were forced by economic necessity to experiment with paper money, and that’s why the United States is the cradle of rolling out this innovation. As Galbraith notes of the above cases, “None of these substitutes was important as compared with paper money.” (Galbraith p. 51).
Next: Europe rethinks money