July 23, 2014

From our collection: Colonial Currency

Revere engraved currency, MS0119 DC1219
Every month I select an item from the archival collection to display in a special document case in the Old State House. Throughout most of July, two pieces of Massachusetts paper currency engraved by Paul Revere, dating to 1776 and 1779, are on display. Most people know Revere from his famous midnight ride, but he is also well known as a blacksmith and engraver. The Society is lucky to have a few of his items in our archival and museum collections.

Hole cancelled currency, MS0047
Each of the thirteen colonies issued their own paper money during the American Revolution, and those pieces were not easily transferable for use in other colonies. Paper currency in the colonies was different from how we think of money today; these pieces were used as bills of credit, issued by the government. Some of the currency in our collection includes what looks like a hole-punch in the center, which is referred to as “hole cancelled.”

Though the bulk of the paper currency in our collection is from Massachusetts, we also have pieces from Rhode Island and New Jersey as well as a few pieces of Continental currency printed in Philadelphia by Hall and Sellers. The first Continental currency, referred to as Continentals, was issued in June of 1775 after a resolution was passed by the Continental Congress.

NJ currency, MS0047
As you can see from the Revere currency pictured above, paper money included elaborate designs and ornamental motifs. Of the two that are on display, the four shilling and six pence piece has an engraving of a codfish at the top center and the five shilling and six pence piece has an engraving of a pine tree. It was typical of engravers of colonial currency to try to prevent counterfeiting by designing intricate typefaces and ornaments that would be difficult to reproduce. Additionally, Continentals were printed on special paper that included thin blue threads and mica to prevent counterfeiting. Though it seems like a harsh punishment, the line “To counterfeit is Death” was included on some pieces of paper currency, like the New Jersey currency pictured to the right.

There is much more to say about colonial currency than can fit in a blog post, so please don’t hesitate to comment with any questions and I’ll try my best to find the answer!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

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