Play Your Cards Right—Or Spend Them!
Posted on 8/21/2018
The year is 1685 in the colony of New France in present-day Quebec. Jacques de Meulles, intendent of the colony—second only to the colonial governor—is facing a shortage of money. The ship from France is delayed, and de Meulles has soldiers to pay. Without their wages, the soldiers can't purchase goods from local merchants, who will in turn suffer a loss in profit. Faced with a continued lack of money from France, the colony is in danger of spiraling into an economic recession. Jacques de Meulles' solution? An issuance of money using a paper source readily available in the colony: playing cards.
The first playing card money in the colony was issued in June of 1685, bearing de Meulles' signature and seal along with signatures of the governor and treasurer. To accommodate an illiterate population, the cards were cut to indicate denomination. A whole card was valued at 4 livres, a half card at 2 livres, and a quarter card at 15 sols. These early cards were well received in the colony and were fully redeemed when the ship from France arrived in September of that same year.
The remainder of the 17th Century saw continued shortages of funds from France, and playing card money was issued again in 1686, 1690, and 1691. The authorities in France were not impressed with de Meulles' solution, citing the ease with which these notes could be counterfeited. Indeed, counterfeiting did become a problem. In 1690, a surgeon was convicted in one of the colony's first documented cases, sentenced to flogging, and subsequently sold into bondage for three years. The penalty for counterfeiting was later changed to death by hanging.
Undeterred, many counterfeiters became more sophisticated in their endeavors. In 1716, four soldiers concocted a scheme to counterfeit 80,000 livres in card money. The operation involved an engraver, a scribe to forge seals, a drummer (to cover the sound of cards being stamped), and a sergeant major to swap out real cards for the counterfeits. The men were caught after only two months and sentenced to death, but they managed to escape and catch a boat back to France.
A greater problem than counterfeiting was inflation, as colonial officials continued to issue money beyond what the French government could back. While the early issues of playing card money were redeemed for full value, by 1714, the French government was only redeeming 50% of the cards' face value in silver coin. By 1720, the playing card money was considered worthless.
This resulted in a recession in the colony, and several measures were taken to try to correct the situation. Some individuals issued their own notes based on their credit standing, while the government issued promissory notes and introduced copper coins in place of paper money—but these initiatives proved unpopular. With such a poor response, the King authorized a new type of card money in 1729. These new cards were blank stock, rather than playing cards, with differing sizes and shapes to indicate denomination.
In the 1750s, the cost of war with the British resulted in an increase of paper money in circulation – and consequently, more inflation. It is estimated that, between 1751 and 1760, about 134 million livres were in circulation, only 38% of which had been authorized by the royal treasury. In 1760, the war's unfavorable conclusion ended the French regime in Canada. After that, French Canadians still held about 16 million livres worth of paper money, 3.8% of which was card money.
Post-conquest, British merchants in the colony accepted paper money at a discount. It could also be redeemed in France at a discount of 50-80%, depending on the type of note and its age. By 1771, however, the French government was essentially bankrupt, and this paper money became worthless.
While the playing card money was largely unsustainable from an economic standpoint, it served its purpose in a colony that was at times short of money. It was one of the earliest examples of government-issued paper money outside of China.
Later in the 18th Century, playing card money also saw use in French Louisiana, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in South America, and in France during the French Revolution. These instances were short-lived, and with the development of centralized banking, existing money was replaced by banknotes. Unfortunately for those of us who might have enjoyed buying a candy bar with a two of clubs or a computer with a king of hearts, the practice did not persist to today. Alas, it wasn't in the cards!
- Deblon, Veronique. "Money Games." National Bank of Belgium Museum. http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2012/10/money-games.htm, October 2012.
- Imbeault, Sophie. "La dette de la France: les papiers du Canada". Cap-aux-Diamants, No. 115. https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cd/2013-n115-cd0850/70079ac.pdf, Fall 2013.
- Masse, Martin. "North America's First Experience with Paper Money: Card Money in New France." Mises Institute. https://mises.org/library/north-americas-first-experience-paper-money-card-money-new-france, 23 March 2006.
- “Playing Card Money.” Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/playing-card-money/, 7 February 2006.
- Powell, James. "A History of the Canadian Dollar: New France (ca. 1600-1770)." Bank of Canada. https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/1600-1770.pdf, 10 December 2005.
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