Money Problems In New France

Posted on 2/24/2015

Due to a lack of supply of coinage, promissory notes were issued by the Colonial administration as a form of paper money.

When a nation is broke and at war the troops must be paid, even if no one else is. France was colonizing at an incredibly fast rate in the 17th century and always at a lack of funds from France to give to settlers, merchants, and the armies. In the middle of the 17th century, the French Colonial Armies were locked in a war with the Iroquois, allies of the English, in New France. The failure of coin carrying supply ships to reach the French troops, and the lack of coinage itself forced the colonial administration to issue promissory notes:1 we know them today as French Colonial playing card money.

On the backs of these playing cards were the Colonial administration penned pledges in three different denominations: 4 livres, 2 livres and 15 sols. Since many of the inhabitants of New France were illiterate, the cards were cut to represent their denomination. They were either left whole representing 4 livres, cut in half to represent 2 livres, or quartered to denote 15 sols.2

These promissory notes predated American Colonial currency by five years. They were issued from 1685-1719, much to King Louie XIV’s great disapproval. For two reasons the Sun King dissented on the colonies decision to issue promissory notes: with such an easy way to raise temporary funds it could lead to extreme overspending by the colonies, and the card money would be easily counterfeited.3 Despite the King’s condemnation, the issuing went on.

The cards were counterfeited to an extent – enough to change the penalty if caught from branding and caning to death by hanging. The largest counterfeiting operation (run by 4 soldiers in the Colonial Army) lasted only two months and the men were swiftly dealt with.4

The card money quickly gained popularity as it was safer to transfer than coin, and was readily available. The cards became a widely used form of currency among all colonists. The system was working and the cards were usually redeemed for coin as supply ships arrived from across the Atlantic. But, due to this popularity the colonial administration had to continue to issue the cards leading to King Louie’s chief fear: over-issuing and overspending. In the early 18th century, the French Treasury could not keep up with the demand for coin from the redeemed playing cards. So how was the shortfall made up? By issuing more card money! A slippery slope indeed. In 1719, the King ordered the redemption of all playing card money at half of face value in silver.5

Almost all of the cards were redeemed then burned, while the others were proclaimed worthless.6 The coinage flow problem was never solved by the French Treasury and once again the colonies became strapped for cash leading to the eventual end of the French colonies forming what is now Canada. A playing card born of necessity but mishandled by authorities debased an entire economy. Images of the King of Diamonds and the Jack of Hearts surely gave the Sun King many sleepless nights.

1. R.J. Graham, Editor Canadian Government Paper Money 27th Edition (Toronto: The Charlton Press, 2014), 1.
2. Graham, Canadian Government Paper Money, 1.
3. Richard Lester, Playing-Card Currency of French Canada (Montreal: Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 1964), 10.
4. Lester, Playing-Card Currency of French Canada, 12.
5. Graham, Canadian Government Paper Money,1.
6. Graham, Canadian Government Paper Money,1.

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