US Colonial and Continental Currency

Until the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued the first paper currency in 1690, money in the colonies was limited to British and Spanish coins. Indeed, the Spanish dollar, known as a "piece of eight," was the dominant coin of the New World. But a shortage of coins made transactions difficult, so unofficial paper money was printed.

The Colonial paper issued between 1690 in Massachusetts and 1788 in New York included bills engraved by Paul Revere — an image of a codfish graces one side of his bills for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Pennsylvania was the first colony to allow its citizens to use their land as collateral for loans of currency. Benjamin Franklin, who helped create the Pennsylvania paper, believed that it was the British government’s decision to take away the currency of its colonies that most contributed to the Revolutionary War.

During that war, the fledging nation financed its army by issuing Continentals, printed on Benjamin Franklin’s press, in 1775. Like Colonial currency, Continentals were backed by neither gold nor silver—it was promise of future tax revenues alone that was supposed to give investors confidence.

Nor surprisingly, it didn’t, and the Continentals were quickly devalued. At one point, holders of Continentals were getting two and a half cents on the dollar for their paper. As George Washington himself said, "A wagonload of Continentals will hardly purchase a wagonload of provisions." Collectors do much better today.

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