Early American Paper Money

[photo: 1709 New York 10 Shilling Colonial Note]

Early 10 Shilling Note, issued by the New York Colony in 1709

[photo: 1775 Massachussetts Bay 42 Shilling Colonial Note]

1775 42 Shilling Note from the Massachussetts Bay Colony, featuring Paul Revere's "Sword in Hand" design

[photo: 1777 Georgia $1 Colonial Note]

1777 Georgia Colony $1 Note with red seal

Early history – 1690 to 1775

In order to meet the needs of the expanding population, and in an effort to encourage local trade, it was necessary for the original colonies to issue their own paper currency. These earliest types, called Colonial Notes, were issued between 1690 and 1781 and originally served as payment for military campaigns and public works for the issuing colony. The early issues established the use of the term "Bill of Credit" – to justify the notes as borrowing for a public expenditure since the colonies were not authorized by England to issue "money". Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to issue notes, to pay the troops for military action against Canada in 1690. South Carolina was next in 1703, and the northeastern colonies of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire began printing notes in 1709. Rhode Island, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Virginia and Vermont would follow at various intervals.

While earlier notes often featured mottos and themes reflecting the distinct character of the issuing colony, notes of the Revolutionary War era utilized patriotic images and mottos like "Don't tread on me" to symbolize the ideals of freedom. The seeds of the American Revolution and the struggle for freedom are embodied in the colonial notes of this era. The vast majority of colonial notes in existence today were issued between 1770 and 1785. Some of the best known of this period were produced in Massachusetts and feature the workmanship of Paul Revere, who engraved copper printing plates depicting the iconic "Sword in Hand" patriot. Georgia notes of the Revolutionary War period are also famous for their use of patriotic seals featuring Justice and the Liberty Cap.

[photo: 1776 $8 Continental Note, face]

The face of this 1776 $8 Continental Note bears hand‑written signatures and serial number.

[photo: 1776 $8 Continental Note, back]

The leaf illustration on the reverse is an anti‑counterfeiting device.

Breaking from the mother country – 1775

In the spring of 1775, friction between Britain and her colonies evolved into open hostilities. The future United States of America had few assets that could be turned into money, so the May 10, 1775 session of the Continental Congress authorized the first federally issued paper currency. Circulating alongside Colonial Notes, this "Continental Currency" entitled the bearer to face value in gold or silver, based on the Spanish milled dollar known as the "Piece of Eight". Continental Currency provided critical financing for the American Revolution, though the notes said nothing about redemption because the Continental Congress had no money with which to honor them.

Printed by Hall & Sellers of Philadelphia, most of the notes had a similar appearance with an allegorical vignette on the face (most of which were suggested by Ben Franklin). The back featured a detailed image impressed by a lead plate – an anti-counterfeiting device created by Ben Franklin. Each printed note bore serial numbers and signatures added by hand.

"Not Worth a Continental"

Though Colonial Notes and Continental Currency played important roles in the military and economic affairs of the individual colonies and the American Revolution, the expression "not worth a Continental" arose when the notes essentially became worthless due to severe inflation toward the end of the War for Independence. Circulating on a par with the Spanish milled dollar in early 1777, it took 40 Continental Currency dollars to buy a single Piece of Eight in 1780. The subsequent long delay in issuing federal paper currency until the Civil War years of the 1860s was the direct result of devaluation and distrust of Continental Currency.