All The Currency That Existed In The United States Before The USD
Though the United States dollar was officially adopted in 1785, paper currency didn't fully enter circulation until the Civil War. The current appearance of modern US bills developed only after a long period of economic development based on commodities and coinage.
The earliest form of currency used on the North American continent includes Native American beads and coins minted in Europe. Given the choice, which form of currency would you want to revisit? Does the barter-based wampum appeal to your sensibilities, or perhaps a gold and silver system that would literally weigh you down?
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1600s: Spanish Pieces Of Eight
The Spanish real, or "royal," was stable, heavily regulated, and widely circulated in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries. Referred to as "pieces of eight," reales functioned as currency and commodity alike in English colonies. The coin became Virginia's standard mode of exchange in 1645.
Spanish pieces of eight were used in daily transactions, officially made legal tender in 1793, and remained a form of recognized money until 1857. Even after the introduction of the dollar, John Quincy Adams commented in the 1820s that Spanish pieces of eight were prevalent while the country's "own lawfully established dime... remain[s], to the great masses of the people, among the hidden mysterys of political economy - state secrets."
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1862: United States Notes, Or Legal Tender Notes
Legal tender notes, also known as United States notes, were the foundation for the modern cash used today. These notes included serial numbers and an official seal.
The notes acquired their "legal tender" moniker due to language printed on the notes. The obligation on the first bills issued in 1862 stated, "This note is a legal tender for all debts, public and private, except duties on imports and interest on the public debt, and is exchangeable for US six per cent twenty year bonds, redeemable at the pleasure of the United States after five years."
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Early 1600s: The British Pound
English colonists who landed in North America continued to use the currency with which they were most familiar: the British pound. Pounds, shillings, and pence were deeply ingrained methods of exchange.
At the time, Britain functioned on a bimetallic system, where legal currency was silver and gold. Gold guineas were set to equal a specific weight of silver, a system that worked against colonists due to its complexity and lack of practicality. Within the colonies, British coins mostly went back to England to pay for imports anyway. This made other means of exchange much more common.
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1861: Demand Notes
Individual states were prohibited from making their own currency in the United States Constitution. In 1792, Congress created the United States Mint. The Mint mostly stamped and circulated coinage, a uniform currency to be used by all states.
Although states couldn't make their own money, privateers could. As a result, the new government dealt with widespread inflation and counterfeiting. The struggle between national and private currency continued until the outbreak of fighting between the North and South. When the nation split, each entity printed its own notes to pay for the conflict.
Demand notes, or greenbacks, were issued by the United States Treasury in 1861. Demand notes did not accrue any interest and met the needs of a nation that coinage could not sustain. The circulation of greenbacks increased inflation, but a tax placed on private currencies helped limit competing printed notes.
Demand notes (printed in $5, $10, and $20 amounts) could be exchanged for gold or silver at United States banks. They were later replaced by legal tender notes that weren't as easily converted to coin.
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With little uniformity in modes of exchange, commodities became increasingly important in colonial America. Most notably, furs and wampums were used as legal tender in the northern colonies, with the latter functioning as the official legal currency in Massachusets for almost two decades.
Wampums were made from beads shaped out of polished shells, a currency used by Native Indians in North America. Once the beads were strung along strips of leather and turned into adornments like necklaces and belts, the wampums could be exchanged for goods or given as gifts. Dutch and English colonists exchanged wampums, and it was adopted by traders in New York, New Jersey, and other locations.
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1775: Continental Currency
Once the American Revolution broke out, the colonies had to fund it. Known as Continental Currency, the first federally issued money in the colonies was authorized by the Continental Congress on May 10, 1775.
There was no gold or silver backing for Continentals, as they were known. Instead, they were supposed to be supported by forthcoming tax revenue. The currency had different values ranging from $1 to $80.
Continentals were widely counterfeited, and soon lost value. As a result, colonies began to issue their own paper notes.