The Story of How Playing Cards Replaced Money

Mankind knew many exotic means of payment in our modern view. Salt, swords, shells, etc. acted as money. But we connect similar “currencies” rather with periods of formation of early civilizations. The more surprising when the developed France in XVII century instead of banknotes began to apply cards!

This happened during the colonization era of North America. In 1534, the Frenchman Jacques Cartier, making expeditions to the shores of modern Canada, proclaimed these lands under the jurisdiction of the King of France. But real colonization did not begin until 70 years later, when the iconic cities of Annapolis Royal, Quebec and Montreal were founded one after another. At the end of the 17th century, the French annexed the Mississippi Valley. The new lands, namely Canada, Louisiana, Acadia and the island of New Foundland, were named after New France.

map

The first settlers both fought and traded with local Indian tribes, using beaver skins, grain and beads as money. The real money was very little, it was only brought by ships from far away France. On the spot it was not possible to mint coins due to the lack of the necessary amount of precious metals. The growing economy of the colonies demanded money, but could do with natural goods, which were often exchanged between them.

Real money was demanded by civil servants, large suppliers and, of course, soldiers. Soldiers could be persuaded to fight in hostile territory with the cruel tribes of Iroquois and Hurons, not least for good pay. But the supply of money from Europe was limited. The non-arrival of a ship or its arrival with great delay caused great inconvenience and confusion. It was also difficult to transport that money through New France.

To find a way out of this situation, in 1685, Jacques de Melle, the land intendant, created an innovative system. On a back of playing cards various denominations have been put, the seal in the form of a heraldic lily has been put, and also the governor, the intendant and the treasurer have left the signatures. Having put power signs, it has been declared that these cards are accepted as means of payment (and rather receipts). These cards have become an obligation of the New French authorities to make the payment when the real money appears. When another ship from Europe arrived, all these cards were “bought back” for living money. This is how playing cards were able to resolve temporary difficulties, and until 1689 this method was no longer used. But they came back again and were actively used between 1689 and 1719.

cards

What seemed strange soon began to be perceived as quite legal means of payment. Card money was circulating through all the colonial lands. It became so popular that it was just a regular issue. As of 1714, about 2 million livres worth of cards were in use. And some maps carried a face value of 100 livres – a lot of money for those times.

But it was the popularity of card money that caused the trouble. Counterfeiters, who had no difficulty to forge such money, became more active. Huge money, sorry, the card mass was constantly replenished with new circulations. Inflation literally “ate” their value, which affected the income of the Royal Court itself in Paris. It forced the authorities to take bold measures. In 1717, King Louis XV announced that the card money would be redeemed only for half of the face value put on them. And soon (in 1720) French officials completely withdrew the cards from circulation.

And that would be the end of the story. By removing the card money system, the French authorities did not remove the reason why it appeared. The lack of money to pay for it forced colonial traders to demand the return of their favorite card system…

In 1729 playing cards again have got the status of means of payment. But this time the architects of the New France economy tried to introduce strict rules. Cards were left without coloring, in fact it was just pieces of paper. One card was equal to 24 livres, and cutting the card in half, the traders received two on 12. Or, to reduce the card’s denomination, they cut the corners. An interesting detail is that this very fact contributed to the fact that the future cards were shaped with rounded corners.

The return of the card money brought back the problems of inflation. Already in 1733 there were 600 thousand livres in circulation, expressed in cards. But along with cards, certificates, bills of exchange and French money were actively used. The share of card money was decreasing.

cards

As a result of the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French in 1763, the lands of New France were transferred under British control. At that time, there were about 16 million livres in paper money. Among them, card money was only 3.8%. The French authorities undertook to convert the available card money into public debt. It was calculated on the basis of 50-70% of the cost of card money, depending on the time of its issue. But in 1771, France was essentially bankrupt, which finally devalued the card money.

One more interesting fact. After the capture of the Fort de Chartres, the British succumbed to the social traditions of the French who had previously lived there. The English soldiers also began paying their salaries with card money. But these orders were abolished a few years later.

Inspired by this extraordinary historical phenomenon, the Royal Canadian Mint in 2018 has let out the finest set of four silver coins in the form of playing cards. The set contains four coins, each 1.5 ounces of pure silver. The design of the cards is reminiscent of the playing cards style of the Royal Court in the 18th century.

The card-money story is so remarkable that it will never cease to amaze those who get to know it. And you know what? Card money has still appeared in human history, but in other parts of the world. But that’s a different story.)

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