CONNECTIONS: When money didn’t count

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By Tuesday, Feb 7 Life In the Berkshires  4 Comments
A copper coin and a button side by side, representing the variety of currencies in use in the early days of the United States. Image courtesy of the book 'In Yankee Doodle's Pocket' by Will Nipper

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

What did Yankee Doodle Dandy have in his pocket? Fun to contemplate: what did an American, immediately after the Revolutionary War, carry in his pocket?

Though Will Nipper is author of “In Yankee Doodle’s Pocket,” he tells us actually Yankee Doodle did not have a pocket. He might have had a pouch that he pinned to an article of his clothing. He may have had something closer to a purse, a shoulder bag, and possibly a saddle bag. Even then, Nipper, a numismatist, reminds us there was no uniform American currency. So, besides a handkerchief, what was Yankee Doodle carrying?

A Continental one-third dollar bill. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A Continental one-third dollar bill. Image courtesy Wikipedia

It might have been quite an amalgam. As colonies, we never minted money. We were accustomed to using money from England and other countries, principally Spain. Even after the Revolutionary War, we continued to do so.

Very quickly a country had been created out of a collection of colonies; an outpost was a nation. A nation was expected to have a currency. The new states created bills and struck coins. There was the Pennsylvania pound, for example. What the United States had was a collection of coins and bills from all corners. The problem was that Georgia was not necessarily trusting of money made in New York and New Hampshire was not excited about bills or coins from Virginia. Even if a merchant in Massachusetts accepted a pound from Pennsylvania, there was not perfect agreement as to its value. We needed a uniform currency.

There was an attempt to create new money for the new nation as early as 1775. The Continental Congress created paper money called “Continentals.” Between 1775 and 1791, it tried to use Continentals to pay war debt.

In the history of the American dollar, the Continental was a false start. Continentals were unsupported – you know, “not worth the paper they were printed on” — and easy to counterfeit. The bills were quickly viewed as worthless. It took a long time for the new country to create a single, uniform currency; support it alternately by silver and gold; and make it the only recognized currency (legal tender).

Tony Carlotto.

Tony Carlotto.

It did happen following a war, but it was not after the Revolutionary War. It happened after the Civil War. The National Bank Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 attempted two things: to establish a national banking system and to create a uniform currency. It only succeeded in doing the second. So what did American citizens carry and use to purchase things in the first 88 years?

Yankee Doodle did what he had always done: he bartered. If he had a cow, he fed his children milk and then his wife churned butter and cheese to trade in the market for something else his family needed. The household could make other things that had “monetary” value: for example, nails. Nails were rare because they were handmade and they were very useful, so, like butter, cheese, tobacco and beaver skins, people assigned a value to nails and “paid” with them. Another rare item that attained a monetary value was buttons. Assigning monetary value to these commodities facilitated trade but did not eradicate the need for a single national currency.

The various coins and bills that pre-date 1863 may have caused confusion in their day but are exciting to collect. Berkshire has its own numismatist. He is Tony Carlotto, author of “The Copper Coins of Vermont.”

Carlotto concentrated his study and collection on Vermont in the years 1785–89. When he chose Vermont, he chose well. Vermont declared itself an independent country in 1777. It did not become the 14th state of the United States until 1791. For those 14 years, it had its own currency.

Vermont coppers.

Vermont coppers.

Although Carlotto tells the story of a coin placed on eBay in 2016 that fetched $30,000, it is the history that excites him.

As Tony fingers one of the coins in his collection, his face lights up, “Do you realize Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson could have handled this coin?”

Although the exact value — buying power – of a single Vermont copper is hard to determine, Carlotto imagines he knows how the coins were used. What if, Carlotto asks, the value of the two items being traded was not equal? How did our ancestors make change? It is logical to assume, he writes, “the lower copper denomination came in very handy [as change].”

Carlotto tells us that what Yankee Doodle carried was plan, flan, planchet, coin, disc, copper and piece. Sounds good; unfortunately they were seven names for the same thing and our first citizens had very little no matter what they called it. For the first eight decades, Yankee Doodle may have operated without any money at all.

It is odd, is it not, that something that became the basis of our 20th- and 21st-century values was not even a part of daily life in the first years of our country. We were formed based on many things; money was not chief among them.

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Michael Forbes Wilcox says:

    Thanks for Carole for another fun insight into our early days. In my Wall Street career, I did a lot of investing in many different currencies, and it was tricky keeping track of exchange rates, even with all our computers and electronic trading. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to figure out the value of “foreign” currencies (such as the Pennsylvania pound) in the post-Colonial period!

    And, I learned something new about Tony!

    As kids growing up in Stockbridge, my friends and I would go into the Housatonic National Bank and get rolls of pennies to search through, looking for Indian Head cents and other scarce varieties. Two-dollar bills and (real) silver dollars were in common use in those days. A nickel could get you a Coke or a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone, or pay for a phone call in a pay phone (remember those?).

    Today, many people have debit cards that they use for everything, but cash is still King. The BEP prints more currency than ever before, keeping the paper rolling off the production line at Crane Paper in Dalton! Our stable monetary system is one that I guess we more or less take for granted; it’s interesting to know that is really a modern phenomenon.

  2. Susan Bachelder says:

    Thanks, as always, for a really fun read. Nice to see Tony too. Is that why soldiers had a lot of buttons on their jackets? They could use them as currency? The more buttons on your uniform, the wealthier and higher rank you were?

  3. Alice Maggio says:

    There might also be an untold story here that could use investigating — what about local bank notes? There is a story in James Miller’s history of Sheffield in which some people were counterfeiting bank notes across state lines — either New Yorkers were faking Berkshire currency or Berkshirites were faking New York currency, I forget. But there is a (slightly hidden) history of a diversity of paper currencies in this country, as well, leading all the way up to BerkShares. Is there anyone who wants to research that?

    Also, in small towns where currency could be scarce there used to be “accounting days,” when neighbors would look at their records and pay their debts to each other. The accounts might be kept unreconciled for a year at a time (or more) before people decided to even up. This recalls the way that Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes worked in the late 1980s — Taft Farms and The Corn Crib worked together to issue their own currency to help them start the season. Their customers could buy Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes in the Spring using US Dollars, and they could then use them to pay for vegetables during the growing season. At the end of the season, Taft Farms and The Corn Crib held an accounting to see which farm issued more Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes than they took in at the end. Instead of evening out the accounts with hard-to-come-by cash they traded potatoes!

  4. Tony Carlotto says:

    Very nice viewpoint in a well written concise article. I always enjoy reading all of Carole’s works. An addition to the previous comment is that Gilbert Belcher was hung in Albany in 1773 for counterfeiting. Today one can find Belcher Square and Belcher’s cave in GB. “Counterfeiting in Colonial New York” by Ken Scott has expanded information.

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