English North American Colonies:Money

From Marteau


In the 1670s to 1690s a Post office was established in the Various Colonies under Patent to the Crown that went between the principal cities and towns of the provinces. In New England it ran weekly from Portsmouth in New Hampshire to Boston in Massachusetts Bay, then to New York and south into Pennsylvania and beyond.[1] By the first decades of the 18th century the post ran weekly between the cities from Portsmouth to Williamsburg in Virginia.

Postage was charged by distance, and varied between destinations.[2] The person posting the mail had the option of paying nothing, paying the entire charge in advance, or making only a down payment, forcing the addressee to pay any remaining charges before the letter would be delivered to them. If the letter contained more than one sheet of paper, or more than one type of letter (a bill of exchange or lading, invoice, etc), or more than one note, it would be charged double or triple the normal postage rate accordingly.[3]

Letters sent through the post were marked at the post office that they started from with the name of the stage and the postage to its destination. Along side the postage due the word “paid” and an amount were added if the letter was prepaid. If the letter was going to a large town or city, the letter, if not picked up the day it arrived, would be delivered by a postal worker to the Addressee's residence at the charge of one half-penny for the use of the worker on delivery duty.[4] This service allowed the recipient to make a reply before the next returning mail departed.

The postal system of the Mid-Eighteenth Century was not nearly as extensive as it is now. Ben Franklin said in 1766 “...The posts only go along the sea coasts; they do not, except in a few instances, go back into the country...”[5] In fact, there were only about 60 post offices in the Colonies in 1765, almost all of which were on the coasts or not more than 60 miles inland.[6] Franklin was Deputy Post-Master of North America from 1753 to 1774.

Once mail reached the end of the postal line as it headed further inland, there were a few options remaining. One could send the letter on by postal express, at an additional cost of 3 pence (sterling value) per mile,2 or wait for someone who is traveling in the direction of the addressee to pick it up and carry it the rest of the way.[7] This later method was a common practice, and became an easy way for Journeymen Craftsmen, businessmen, traders and travelers of every type to earn goodwill and small amounts of money in the towns they passed through. In towns where there was no post office a tavern, inn or store usually served the purpose alongside its usual duties.[8]

The Postal System also allowed for the sending of Newspapers, an important source of news and information on many things in the period.[9] These newspapers carried information on politics (local, inter-colonial, international and otherwise), foreign and near battles, of navies and armies moving about the globe, lotteries, lost horses and slaves, found horses and slaves, goods and land to be sold, estates to be settled and ads for entertainments.[10] With lists of ships going in and out of various ports and regions with their planned or actual departures and arrivals, the People would be able to gauge the transport situation, which gives huge insight into how or when you can go between the Mother Country, and when goods and news may come in. Also, Legal Notices and advertisements were added to quickly pass them on.

The form of addressing letters was slightly different then the modern day, as houses on streets were not numbered. Usually the recipient's Name, trade, Town of Residence (in larger cities their neighborhood as well) and Colony were all that was needed to direct the letter to its destination.[11]


Cash was in reasonable supply in the colonies in the mid 18th century. It consisted of many foreign coins, a smattering of English silver and copper coins, as well as a very small amount of gold and Colonial paper.

The monies of account in the Colonies were normally of two types: British Pounds Sterling and Colonial Pounds. For the most part, colonial currencies were 75% of the value of the same unit in Sterling. Any coins which were not of the English standard were considered Bullion.

Bullion, or the coined forms of it such as Spanish, Dutch, French and German silver coins, were valued only by their weight of metal. Thus, if one had a Spanish coin of 1 Real, it would take it's value from the weight of silver it possesses, measured in grains and pennyweights, which is easily set to the English or colonial standard exchange rate. In fact, the postal chart of 1765 gives postage in pennyweights and grains of silver for the express reason that most of the coins in use were foreign, and thus considered bullion.

As for the English coins, which were considered true money, their value came not only their weight but from the stamp upon them which ascertained the weight of metal and government endorsement of the coin's value. The predominant type of coinage in the colonies would have been the British Copper halfpence and Farthings (Quarter-pence), which were of two major types: Government and Counterfeit. As for the Government coins “It has been estimated some £69,000 in farthings and halfpence were exported to the American colonies from 1695 to 1795.”5 These coins were a convenient aid to commerce that kept the lines short at small businesses throughout cities, as this skips the long ledger entries which credit, trade and barter entailed in working out the value of work or goods to be traded and measuring out volumes and weights of things in exchange.

However, the counterfeit coins of the same denominations caused some problems with this convenience of having small change. The counterfeits were mostly cast replicas of 50 year old, well worn coins, with inferior metals mixed with the copper which theoretically gave the coin its value. These forgeries were actually quite effective, and were thought to comprise almost half of the copper coins in circulation in the British Empire in the 18th century.6 These coins also caused several mass panics through most of the Colonial cities at one time or another and so older coins, government issues or not, were often held suspect.7 Even with the counterfeit problems, the copper coinage was accepted anywhere in the colonies, and so common that a Massachusetts exchange rate broadside of 1750 stated, on the subject of the copper coinage:

“Nothing here is said concerning the rate that English copper halfpence must pass at, by reason that the government being possessed of so large a quantity, will no doubt fix their value: But with humble submission, should they put the value of a penny on an English half-penny (as it is thought by some they will), there is great danger that it will be attended with very fatal consequences. For anyone, the least acquainted with Trade and Business, must be convinced that in a few years, we shall not have a single dollar in the province, but shall have copper substituted in the room of silver, with this additional misfortune, that we shall sink one Third Part of the Sterling Value of the original Grant made by His Majesty to this Province: For at present no Trade is so advantageous as shipping off Dollars, either to New-York, Philadelphia, or Great Britain, and importing Half Pence for Returns, provided those Half-Pence are worth here a Penny Lawful Money. But should the Government exchange them, and enact that others should take them in a just Proportion with Dollars, then the true Value of them which is annexed to the Table to know the Value of coin'd Gold, &c. may be of Service.”8

Thus, by these indications, small change coinage was not so much a problem, as added to the English small change, divers kinds of “Black doggs”9 (foreign coppers which passed as small change, typically at about 2 pence colonial10) were floating about the colonies. The problem was with higher denomination coinages. These silver and gold coins, such as Spanish coins of ½, 1, 2, 4, or 8 Reals , Dutch Lion Dollars, French Ecu's and were less common, yet still in use, as can be seen on the conversion charts of the times.11

Furthermore, many advertisements of the time period for horses or slaves which have wandered or run off list a full or half-pistole (worth 11 or 22 Shillings Mass., respectively) reward for their return.12 Also, in an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette where a man was robbed by a highwayman, he lists what was stolen, among which are “A Dubloon, Three Pistoles two dollars and two or three pistereens...13” This amount of cash was a lot, and not typical, but it illustrates that there were at least enough coins in circulation to provide a reasonable amount of silver and gold to make larger purchases.

The higher denomination coins were also counterfeited, as can be seen in the newspapers of the time. The Virginia gazette makes many mentions of counterfeiters in the colonies producing copies of the more common Spanish Dubloons, Dollars, Pistereens and Pistoles and attempting to pass them.14 Although many of these operations were stopped, found out or did a poor job, making it easy to spot their work,15 they could and did have the effect of undermining the public confidence in their money. Much like the coppers mentioned above, the panics caused could grind an entire city's trading to a halt, and without the daily commerce upon which many of the city dwelling craftsmen relied for their food, the cities could begin falling apart.

The other main source of cash was provincial paper Treasury Notes. This paper money was used throughout the colonies and to greater or lesser success depending on the colony. For the most part, they were considered not good for their face value, because if the colonies had the silver they were promising, they would issue it instead of paper. Still, when nothing else was around, paper money served its purpose, as merchants would occasionally hoard silver and gold cash so that they could use it to pay off international or inter-colonial debts, thus reducing the money supply.16 These notes were primarily treasury notes, redeemable for a certain amount of gold or silver at the colony’s treasury. However, with the situation as it was with bullion, they were not really trusted, and inflation was rampant; to the point that its issue was discontinued in the 1750s in favor of coinage.17

The Banking situation was a bit different. The currency system was only in one form, that of English Pounds Sterling, and occasionally Colonial Pounds, though not as often. In 1750 there were about 20 banks in London18, Two in Edinburgh19 and several scattered about the colonies. One benefit of having an account at a bank was the ability to write checks from your account20 draw banknotes and have a secure place to put your money.

Bills of Exchange came in two primary types: Banknotes and the predecessor to the Modern Check. Bills of exchange were used to pay off debts to England by having indebted planters in the West Indies write out bills for the sum of their debts, then they were applied to the accounts of the American merchants when they were turned in to a Factor (agent) or merchant in England.22

Banknotes at the time were much like Cashier’s checks today. The text printed on them was

[Bank Logo, Number, Location and date on top line].
I promise to pay to [name of payee here]
or bearer on demand [Written sum in pounds, shillings and pence].
[Sum £/S/d] For [Bank Name, Drawer and Drawee] [signature]


Thus this is like having a check written out to cash, and these notes would circulate for a while before they were redeemed, esp. in the colonies. Banknotes were not backed by any government, and were redeemable at the bank that issued them. Their acceptance relied on the bank’s reputation. These notes, however, had a few advantages over the treasury notes issued by the colonies, in that the banks were required to have at least some of the money they loaned out in credit or notes, unlike the colonial governments. Also, their notes could be redeemed for the face value in hard cash, and would be more useful when going between colonies, as many colonies followed Massachusetts’ example and outlawed the use of other colony’s currency.24

Checks worked somewhat the same way. The major difference is that they were issued by the account-holder, not the bank directly, and consisted of a hand-written note to the bank requesting a sum be paid out from your account to a certain individual and signed by the person requesting it. They followed the general format of this check written in 1705:

Nottingham, 31 of August 1705

Please to pay Tho(mas) Wright or (on) order Sixty fouer pounds Eleaven

Shil(in)gs and five pense and plase [place] the same to Eliz(abeth) Metcalfe and sister.

P(er) yours

To Mr Tho(mas) Smith p(re)sent {Signed J Smith}

[Text Found through personal correspondence with the Royal Bank of Scotland]

Thus, Thomas Wright is the Drawee, who is to be paid £64/11/5 from Mrs. Metcalf (the drawer) by Mr. Thomas Smith (the Payee), who will count the payment against the account of the Metcalfe sisters. The signature of J Smith is believed to be a financial Factor (Agent) of the Metcalf sisters.26

If one could not find a bank near enough to be practicable, almost every store in the colonies would offer credit to their customers, provided they could trust you to pay it back. Thus, they would offer many of the same services as a bank. On a smaller scale the merchants would most probably allow you to draw checks and “Storenotes.” One would most likely not redeem a “Storenote” or a check drawn on a merchant account in money, but in goods, or a transfer of credit. Sometimes, a note wasn’t even used, as the two parties would meet with the merchant in person to make the transfer.27

The money situation in the colonies was not the greatest, as explained above, and so, as any salesman worth his commission will tell you when you don’t have the cash, “well, you can put it on your Credit Card.” This service was commonly the answer to the money shortage, and was paid off by work (Barter) or exchange of goods (Trading). For example, if there was a storekeeper whose roof was leaking, and had a carpenter in his debt, the carpenter would repair the roof in exchange for the value of the repairs being taken off of his debt. The service of allowing “Storenotes” and Checks to be drawn off of these accounts filled a very large deficiency in the colonial economy.30

In the Large Scale, Credit was used as well, all over the world, to accommodate the shipments of goods, and simplify transactions. Between nations and merchants, it was easier to keep logs of credit and debts, then pay these off by an exchange of commodities. See Bill of exchange.


  • Franklin, Benjamin. “Tables of the Port of all single letters carried by post in the Northern district of North America” link(Accessed 12 October MMVII)
  • “Additional Instruction to the Deputy Postmasters of North America, 20 April 1758” Benjamin Franklin Papers Vol. 7 No. 390b link (Accessed 12 October MMVII)
  • “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons” Benjamin Franklin Papers Vol 13 No. 124a. link (Accessed 12 October MMVII)
  • Roger Coke, A Discourse of Trade (London: H. Brome/ R. Horne, 1670). e-text
  • Darnton, Robert. "Presidential Address: An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris," The American Historical Review February 2000 link (Accessed 5 November MMVII)
  • East, Andrea and Richman, Micheal. Coins, currency and cash in 18th century England. link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
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  • Grubb, Farley. Theory, evidence and belief- the colonial money puzzle revisited: reply to Michner and Wright Economic Journal Watch, Jan. 2006 Vol 3 No 1. link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • New Hampshire Provincial & State Papers, Vol.17 part 2 (New York, NY: AMS Press, 1973). “Mr Mason's Account of the Commodities of NH Rec'd December 1671.” pg 515
  • Phineas Stevens’ Ledgers 1748/9. (NY Historical Society, Manhattan, NY.) Call Number: BV Stevens, Phineas Non-Circulating.
  • Joplin, Thomas. An Essay on Money and Bullion (London, UK: B. Lintot , 1718) link (Accessed 12 October MMVII)
  • US department of commerce. Bicentennial Edition Historical Statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1970. (Washington DC: 1975) Pp 1183
  • The Virginia Gazette Archives in the Rockefeller Library Digital Collection. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. link (Accessed 5 November MMVII)
  • Smith, William. “The Colonial Post office” American Historical Review 21 (January 1916): 258-75. link (accessed 5 November MMVII)
  • “A mournful lamentation for the sad and deplorable death of Mr. Old Tenor” (Boston, Massachusetts: 1750) link (Accessed 12 October MMVII)
  • Coin and Currency Collections in the Department of Special Collections University of Notre Dame Libraries. Regal British Coppers in the Colonies. link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • Coin and Currency Collections in the Department of Special Collections University of Notre Dame Libraries. Counterfeit British Coppers link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • Coin and Currency Collections in the Department of Special Collections University of Notre Dame Libraries. Small Change coinage of Ca. 1700 and related coinage proposals: Intro. link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • National Postal Museum. “Colonies and the Mail.” link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • Probate inventories of York County VA, held by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Rockefeller Library. link (Accessed 5 November MMVII)
  • The Story of Banking: A History of English Banking. Royal Bank of Scotland link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • History dective three: A ninenteenth century banknote- Childs and Co. note. Royal Bank of Scotland. link (Accessed 17 October MMVII)
  • Wikipedia. Article on “Deal” link Accessed 18 October MMVII