The French colonies shared with the British colonies the problem of insufficient money to transact the volume of business that was possible in a land with bountiful resources. French Canada turned to using playing cards as paper money to cope with a currency shortage.
Wheat, moose skins, beaver skins, and wildcat skins are among the commodities that belonged on the list of
mediums of exchange in 17th- and 18thcentury Canada. In 1713, the British soldiers stationed at Nova Scotia, which France had just ceded to Great Britain, petitioned the British authorities to end the practice of paying soldiers in rum, asking “that they be payd in money, or Bills, & not in Rum or other Liquors, that cause them to be Drunk every days, and Blaspheme the name of God” (Lester, 1935). In 1740, the accounts of a
storekeeper in Niagara showed a “deficit by 127,842 cats” (Lester, 1935).
In 1685, the colonial authorities faced a cash-flow crisis that led to the issuance of ordinary playing cards as a form of paper money. During that year, the French government ended its practice of appropriating and sending funds to French Canada in advance of a budget period. The funds for 1685 did not reach Quebec until September, leaving the civil and military authorities in Canada to fend for themselves for the first eight
months of the year. By June 1685, the authorities saw the necessity of issuing some sort of paper money that they could redeem when fresh funds arrived from France. The absence of suitable paper and printing facilities to produce paper money forced the expedient of using playing cards. Each denomination of paper money was associated with playing cards of a certain color and cut into a certain shape. It was a system easily understood by the generally illiterate population. Also, the colonial agent of the treasurer wrote the denomination on each card and, with the governor general and the intendant, signed each card. As long as the French government sent adequate funds once a year to redeem the playing-card money, prices in the new currency remained steady.
The authorities acted to discourage counterfeiting. In 1690, a surgeon found guilty of counterfeiting was condemned “to be beaten and flogged on the naked shoulders by the King’s executioner” (Lester, 1939). He got six lashes of the whip in each “customary square and place.” After surviving this ordeal, the surgeon was sold into bondage for three years. Later, the crime of counterfeiting drew the death penalty, often by hanging.
When hostilities broke out between France and England, France stopped sending silver coin to Canada for
redemption of playing-card money. Instead, the authorities redeemed playing-card money with bills of exchange drawn payable in silver coin in Paris. The merchants in Canada made use of these bills of exchange to pay for supplies imported from France.
As was the case with many other early experiments with paper money, war proved to be the greatest enemy to the integrity of the playing-card system. The supply of playing-card money stood at 120,000 livres in 1702, when war erupted between England and France. By 1714, one year after the war ended, the supply stood at more than 2 million livres. During the war, France began paying the bills of exchange in paper money rather than silver coin, and prices in Canada entered a spiral of inflation. In 1714, the French government offered to redeem all the playing-card money in silver coin at half its face value. The program of redemption took place over a five-year period, and after 1720, the playing-card money was declared worthless.
From 1730 to 1763, the French government again issued card money in Canada, but the cards were blank cards rather than playing cards. The second issue of card money was again reasonably successful until war put a strain on resources.
The use of playing-card money seems a far-fetched expedient for a New World that had supplied the Old World with an abundance of precious metals for coining money. Unlike the Spanish colonies, however, the French and British colonies were not rich in deposits of precious metals. The episode of playing-card money shows the flexibility, adaptability, and inventiveness of an expanding economic system to raise up something to
serve as a medium of exchange. It is also a reminder of the role of culture in identifying a suitable medium of exchange. The sensibilities of the New England Puritans would have been shocked at accepting playing cards as a form of money.
See also: Inconvertible Paper Standard, Siege Money
Beresiner, Yasha. 1977. A Collector’s Guide to Paper Money.
Heaton, Herbert. “Playing Card Currency of French Canada.” American Economic Review (December 1928): 649–662.
Lester, Richard A. 1939/1970. Monetary Experiments.