A Credit Life

One of the more interesting aspects of Colonial life might seem both familiar and peculiar to Twenty-First Century ears. The colonies didn’t have a lot of money in circulation.

Many people have quaint images of people walking around with a large purse of coins, spending gold and silver with frivolous abandon 1, but the reality is something quite different. Most people didn’t use coins at all. Rather, they kept their money in forms which they could show of to their neighbors — a silver tea set, or dinnerware, for example. Coins were portable, but weren’t functional as a symbol of status.

In fact, it was illegal to take English minted coins out of The Realm, as doing so removed wealth from the King’s coffers. What coinage there was in the colonies tended to be from Spanish territories, and the Spanish Dollar was as common as coins got 2. There were paper notes in circulation, but they were limited in value and no one trust them 3.

So if there wasn’t much actual coinage in circulation in the colonies, how did business get done? They used credit. When colonists sold raw goods back to England, they were given credit which, of course, had to be spent in country 4. When colonists did work for one another, or completed transactions, they issued credit in their names to different merchants. This rolling credit was kept up to date in ledger books across the colonies. Each showed who owed what, and what was owed in return. Credit could even be moved between merchants, if all parties agreed.

Living on credit, it seems, is a practice older than The United States itself. Only in the past it was based on what people had actually accomplished, rather than the vaporous mist of what people believe others can afford.

Colonial Ledger

Nikon D7000 with 40 mm lens
40 mm
ISO 400
1/250 sec

  1. I blame pirate movies. 
  2. It’s also where the dollar symbol comes from. 
  3. Plus, they expired. Which left people holding worthless paper. 
  4. And you thought gift cards were a new thing.