tools of trade: money and banking: money

Art is perfected by Practice.
Beauty without Virtue is like a painted Sepulchre.
Content is all we aim at with our Store.
Do not the least Thing unadvisedly.
Every one loveth those that are like himself.
Forgetfulness is the Remedy of Wrongs.
Glory survives good Men after Death.
He's mad that envies proud & prosperous Men.
Let not thy Tongue run before thy Wit.
Misery attends Debts & Law Suits.

—Nicholas Brown handwriting practice book. 1743.


Colonial merchants and traders operated in an extremely complex financial world that required navigation between multiple types of money and forms of credit. In the 18th century, every colony and mother country had a different form of currency, and the shortage of hard money led to many transactions being resolved by bartering goods or services.

For long distance trade, bills of exchange allowed merchants to draw on the resources of trusted correspondents to buy and sell merchandise or to exchange currency without risking the transport of large quantities of goods or specie. In addition to printed currency (with the attendant paper money crises), “money of account”—bills and promissory notes between individuals and companies—could be exchanged or sold to cover debts.  While hard money—generally the Spanish silver dollar in British North America—was highly valued, the papers that kept track of credit and debts became increasingly important as units of exchange.

This case holds examples of some of the financial instruments used by merchants and traders to conduct business in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Items from the Library’s collection of early American currency show the printing techniques employed to combat counterfeiting. The formation of banking institutions is also represented by the Brown family’s participation in the establishment of the Providence Bank in 1791.



Mortgage for James Browne. April 24, 1739. Brown family business records.

The scarcity of hard money in the early 18th century caused colonial governments to issue bills of credit which could be secured by taxes or by mortgages on land. James Brown (the father of the four Brown brothers) received several such mortgages from the colonial trustees.


Nicholas Brown & Co., promissory note to Thomas Sabin.  December 31, 1765.  Brown family business records.

This promissory note from Nicholas Brown & Company reflects the common practice of exchanging goods for commodities of equivalent value—in this case, rum for horses. The signature has been cut out—perhaps to indicate that the note has been settled.

Providence Decem 31st 1765

For Four Suranam Horses Sent in the Brigg George, in Novem Last. we promise to pay to Mr. Thomas Sabin One Hundred & Twenty Gallo. of New Engd. Rum and One Hundred & Twenty Gallo. of Molasses As Soon as our Ship George Hopkins Mas. Arrives, or if She doth not arrive it’s to be paid in Three Month Witness our Hands ..  .


Brown & Benson, Note book of sums due, 1784–1788. Brown family business records.

This notebook shows how Brown & Benson kept track of the notes owed to them by other people and companies.  The alphabet tabs allow for the quick location of debtors by name. George Benson, a former clerk for Nicholas Brown who entered the business as a full partner in 1783, was known to be a particularly efficient bookkeeper.


Bill of exchange, St. Thomas. March 17, 1797. Arnold family business records.

Captain Thomas Laing, master of the Brigantine Harriet, sent Welcome Arnold & Co. this printed bill of exchange from St. Thomas. It was originally drawn on the account of James D’Wolfe & Co. (based in Bristol, RI), for [R. Dg] Jennings & Co., for the amount of 1,000 Spanish Dollars. Owners like Welcome Arnold often instructed their captains to seek out bills of exchange, which could either be redeemed from their original issuer, or sold to cover a future transaction.

Bills of exchange were usually issued in multiple copies, or “sets”. This was essential in an era when delivery of correspondence was uncertain—the payer would honor the first copy received. Bills of exchange had to be paid within a certain time period after being presented—hence the “At ­­­____ Days sight . . .” blank in the printed form.


Continental Loan Office certficates.  1780–1781. Brown family business records.

To fund the Revolutionary War effort, the Continental Congress offered loan certificates, which could be redeemed with interest after a certain period of time—much like the bills of exchange used by merchants and other businessmen. “Livres Tournois” refers to the funds provided by French investors to the Revolutionary government—Continental certificates were to be redeemed in bills of exchange to be cashed in Paris.

Nicholas Brown speculated profitably in these certificates, particularly as the Continental currency depreciated rapidly during the war, and many original owners were willing to sell them at greatly reduced prices.  

One third of a dollar. Philadelphia: Hall & Sellers, 1776. Currency collection.

This note bears an image of a sun dial and the exhortation to “Mind Your Business”. The motto “Fugio” means “I Fly”. 


On the back a series of 13 interlinked circles surround the statement “We Are One”. The designs are attributed to Benjamin Franklin.



Thirty shilling note. Providence: John Carter, 1775. Currency collection.

This thirty shilling note was printed by John Carter—a former apprentice of Benjamin Franklin who had moved to Rhode Island in 1767 and operated the first newspaper in Providence, Providence Gazette, with the Goddard family. Carter’s daughter Ann married Nicholas Brown (the son of the founder of Nicholas Brown & Co.), and was the mother of John Carter Brown. 


Thirty-five dollars.  Philadelphia: Hall & Sellers, 1779.  Currency collection.

This note demonstrates several different anti-counterfeiting techniques.  In addition to the complex borders and ornaments, colored sections in the design make reproduction difficult.Counterfeiters would be unable to reproduce the fine lines and unique patterns.


The back shows the innovative leaf-printing technique developed by Benjamin Franklin—a secret method that possibly involved pressing leaves into plaster to create molds for the type plates. 

Thirty-five dollars.  Philadelphia: Hall & Sellers, 1779.


Death to Counterfeit!
One sixth of a Spanish mill’d dollar. Virginia currency.  1777. Currency collection.

This Virginia note reflects both the importance of the Spanish dollar and the serious penalties for counterfeiting, which was a capital crime in some colonies. 


Counterfeit final settlement certificate. May 1, 1784. Brown family business records.

Soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were often paid with interest-bearing certificates, such as this one issued to a member of the Pennsylvania Line. The indented edge on this certificate was created to help thwart counterfeiting—the curve should match its counterfoil. Though identified as counterfeit, this certificate was obtained by Nicholas Brown as part of his speculation in depreciated fiscal paper after the war.


Pine tree shilling. Currency collection.

Desperate for hard currency, Massachusetts established the first mint in British North America and began issuing silver coins in 1652.  While the mint operated until 1682, nearly all of the coins were struck with the date “1652”— a year when England had no king—so the coins would not technically violate the royal prohibition against colonies producing their own money.  The other side of the coin generally featured a pine tree (an important export from New England, used for the masts of ships), though other trees also appeared. 


Three dollars. Farmer’s Exchange Bank, Gloucester, Rhode Island. 1806. Currency collection.

As banks proliferated in the 19th century, they issued notes that could be used as money, provided that the bank was considered capable of redeeming the notes in specie. The Farmer’s Exchange Bank in Gloucester, RI, bears the dubious distinction of being the first failed bank in the United States, crashing spectacularly in 1809.


“List of bank notes, president’s book, commenced October 10, 1791.” Brown family business records.

Soon after the first Bank of the United States was chartered in February 1791, prominent men in Providence urged the establishment of a bank in their city. Welcome Arnold was elected to be the first chairman of the Providence Bank, John Brown was appointed its first president (after his brother Moses declined the position). This volume records the number and denominations of bank notes signed into circulation by the bank’s president.


“Dispatch is the Life of Business”

Despite the competing tension to protect trade secrets, the circulation of information has long been an essential element of the business world. In the 18th century, financial newspapers disseminated the most current prices, exchange rates, and insurance rates for significant commercial centers. Agents printed circular letters announcing the establishment of new trading houses or touting their mastery of the market, and sent them to current and prospective clients. And copious amounts of ink were expended in correspondence between merchants, traders, factors, and ships’ captains in the exchange of commercial intelligence.


The London Price Current.  London: 1778. Prices current collection.

The prices of everything from antimony to elephants’ teeth were distributed every Friday to the subscribers of “Sworn-Broker” William Prince’s financial newspaper.   The publication also provided insurance premiums, regulated “according to the Advice of the Day concerning AMERICAN Privateers, Weather, and other Circumstances.”


Prices Current:  —Charleston [South Carolina].  December 26, 1786.  Printed for Thayer & Bartlett & Co.  Prices current collection.

Prices current could also be printed with blanks next to common items so that the most recent prices could be written in by hand.


Prices Current at Bordeaux the 31st August 1790.  Forwarded by J. Vernes & Co. Prices current collection.

Some of the printed prices current included columns for agents to include comments and advice.


General list of Exports to America from St. Petersburg, 1798.  Prices current collection.

Lists like this one enabled merchants to keep track of competitors and gauge the status of particular markets. The John Jay sailed for Brown & Ives, while the Minerva belonged to the Arnolds.


Circular letter from Wall & Tardy, Nantes.  July 1, 1782.  Sent to Nicholas Brown.  Prices current collection.

This printed communication from Wall & Tardy announcing their establishment of a trading house in Cape François is typical of the circular letters frequently sent in the hopes of securing patronage from active merchants. These would often arrive in duplicate or triplicate, as multiple copies offered insurance against the vagaries of the available delivery systems. “Y. O. S.” is likely an abbreviation for “Your Obedient Servant”.


John Joyeaux, Cape François to Welcome Arnold.  May 23, 1789.  Arnold family business records.

While circular letters broadcasted general information about the services offered by various agents and printed prices currents gave the state of the markets, much of the most valuable information about trade traveled through the voluminous correspondence contained in these collections of records.  Letters from agents in various locations, from captains and supercargoes, and from traveling employees and family members provided all of these companies with vital information about merchandise, trade conditions, and political situations.

This letter sent to Welcome Arnold from agent John Joyeaux in Cape François gives both a wry comment on the commercial ethics of the planters in the French colony and news about changes in trade conditions for American merchants.

 “I am sorry that your staves [wooden slats to create barrels] do not answer at all for this market, they were found too thin and too narrow by half, for the planters want them green, heavy, as thick and as wide as possible in order to gain on the weight of their hhds, and at the same time on the work of their slaves by putting the least quantity possible in each hhd. . . Inclosed is the newspaper of the 20th instant which contains a very important piece indeed concerning the American trade in this Colony.  The Commander General M. Duchilleau has minutely visited & examined the Southern part of this Island & found it [perceptible?] of the most advantageous culture, both for the welfare of the planters and at the same time for the future interest of the Metropolies, but, finding all that part divested of Slaves, and that the planters were very often at a loss how to obtain provisions, he ordered [v?] immediately the three principal Southern ports to be opened & free to all foreigners for the introduction of Slaves and every Kind of provision flour &c and they will be allowed to export coffee sugar &c in return, I mean from those three ports only, which are Jacquemel, Ocayes, & Jeremie.. . .I shall write on more particularly on the matter in a short time, as this Liberty will only take place in august.”—

Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from September 12 through
december 2012.

Exhibition prepared by Kim Nusco, Reference and Manuscript Librarian, John Carter Brown Library