Though invented in China a millennia ago, paper money was viewed with suspicion for centuries thereafter. With its issuance potentially unlimited, how could its value be maintained? The question was grappled with in colonial Quebec, which resorted to using paper money made from ordinary playing cards in order to make up for a chronic shortage of coins in New France. As with any money, paper money has two values: its face value and its functional value to an economy that requires some medium of exchange, however suboptimal, to conduct trade. Quebec’s card money may have helped solve for the latter but it came at the expense of the former. Excessive issuance of the card money led to its abandonment in the early 18th century, though it was not without a subsequent revival.
Over sixty years after Jacques Cartier explored the Saint Lawrence River in North America and claimed the area for France, the first permanent settlement in Quebec was established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. In the succeeding decades, fewer than thirty thousand settled in Quebec, less than half did so permanently. From the 1660s on, the sparsely-populated French colony was governed by a nine-member council, the Conseil souverain de la Nouvelle-France. Of interest to us, financial matters were handled by the Intendant, an officer whose role was equivalent to that of a finance minister and justice minister combined.
The Intendant had the responsibility of managing the colony’s finances. To this end, he was very reliant on aid from the mother country. Local tax revenue was woefully insufficient to pay for the local administration and the military defending the colony from hostile Native American tribes. To fund all of this, the administration in Quebec received a large transfer of money every autumn. These took the form of bills of exchange that authorized the colony to draw on funds from the treasury in France. While appropriated at the start of each year, it would take months to transport the money across the Atlantic. Other inflows of money into the colony came from exports and some funds were brought over by proselytizing religious orders.
It’s worthwhile speaking of these exports since much of the raison d’être for Quebec was to supply France with the exotic commodities available in the New World. The most significant trade was in the pelts of beavers and moose. These furs were bought by both indigenous and French traders from native tribes farther west and shipped to Europe where they commanded high prices. Export taxes on these furs, 25% on beaver pelts and 10% on moose skins, made up much of New France’s tax revenues. However, frequent wars against Native American tribes, in particular the Iroquois who were supported by the English, often disrupted this trade. This was no small issue since these furs were so important to the local economy that they functioned as a secondary currency. Indeed, in 1674, moose-skins were even made legal tender in colonial Quebec.
Despite exports of valuable furs, Quebec usually imported far more from France than it exported. These persistent trade deficits were a typical feature of continental North American colonies since virtually all manufactured goods had to imported from abroad. Theoretically, these deficits could have been financed by foreign investment in New France or by an efflux of the precious metals. Though there was some of the former in Quebec, counterbalancing the trade deficit also occurred through the latter. Thus, a persistent problem in the colony was that whatever coinage arrived there from exports and financial support promptly and invariably found its way back to France.
Various schemes were undertaken to solve for this shortage of money. As an example, to halt this emission of metal and to encourage the importation of coins, the French livre was assigned a face value a third higher in the colonies. The idea was that merchants would have an incentive to transport coins across the Atlantic where it could purchase more. This was akin to a devaluation of the ‘Quebec livre’ and the price level in the colony rose so that the coins’ purchasing power was unchanged in the end. After this approach failed, locals resorted to using Spanish coins which were also increasingly used in the English colonies to the south; nonetheless, the currency shortage persisted.
It was under these conditions of monetary deprivation that Jacques de Meulles served as Intendant from 1682 to 1686. De Meulles faced a shortage of money with which to pay soldiers after new troops had come to Quebec in 1684 and the subsequent annual remittance from the King failed to arrive. The fiscal and economic situation was also deteriorating amidst the Beaver Wars being fought against the Iroquois; the resumption of war was disrupting the crucial fur trade. De Meulles had looked into borrowing money from the merchant community but rejected the terms they offered. According to de Meulles, these local merchants were willing to fund the colonial government in the devalued ‘Quebec livre’ but demanded repayment in ‘French livres’. The one-third differential would have constituted an exorbitant interest charge.
Rather than accept credit from the colony’s merchants, de Meulles opted to create his own credit. The Intendant had ordinary playing cards cut into quarters and stamped with official symbols and signed. The cards were then made convertible into the bills of exchange redeemable at the French Treasury that constituted the annual fiscal transfer to Quebec. Following this investiture with official value, the cards were issued to pay the soldiers. Thus, the cards were initially merely a financing tool and not a currency. However, the line between currencies and credit instruments is frequently blurred and the cards began to circulate as money.
“ … money being extremely scarce, having distributed considerable sums on every side for the pay of the soldiers, it occurred to me to issue, instead of money, notes on cards, which I have cut in quarters … I have issued an ordinance by which I have obliged all the inhabitants to receive this money in payments, and to give it circulation, at the same time pledging myself, in my own name, to redeem the said notes” -de Meulles, in a letter to the French Minister of the Marine on September 24, 1685
Nonetheless, holders of the card money were able to convert them into bills following each year’s infusion of funds from France. Despite their improvised nature, more card money was issued in subsequent years, creating a cycle of regular issuances and voluntary redemptions that constituted nothing less than a permanent new monetary system. These subsequent issues of card money continued to bear the name of the incumbent Intendant and a denomination that ranged from twenty sous (or one livre) to thirty-two livres. Further, as time went on, confidence in the paper currency, and its value in commerce, grew and this prompted fewer people to redeem them.
Back in France, the government was weary of the monetary experiment underway in its colony. However, they welcomed de Meulles’s creation after noticing that it was successfully reducing the need for metal coins in Quebec, allowing the precious metals to be hoarded in France in keeping with mercantilist theory’s best practices. They also served fiscal purposes, for better or worse. For example, when part of the annual appropriation to New France was lost in transit, the issuance of card money held the colony over until the money could be recovered.
Abandonment and Reintroduction
The reduced pace of annual redemptions encouraged bad behavior. This started with the issuance of card money whose aggregate face value was in excess of the annual stipend from France which backed the notes. Both the reduced redemptions and increased issuance meant the card money was increasingly a form of currency and no longer merely a debt obligation. The first signs that this over-issuance might be inflationary came during the War of Spanish Succession, which resulted in increased military spending and reduced revenue from fur exports. The revenues from money printing filled the gap and new card money with denominations as high as a hundred livres were issued.
It didn’t help matters that French appropriations for the support of Quebec diminished during the war. The colony was nowhere near to fiscal self-sufficiency, making card money the easy way out of fiscal trouble. However, the first experiment with the paper currency was coming to an end. As a result of diminishing purchasing power, the playing card money was abandoned in 1714 and the two million livres in circulation was redeemed at just 50% of face value. The fundamental issue that prompted the creation of card money remained and the return to metal coins caused continued shortages of money and an economic depression. Even making good on soldiers’ pay was once again hampered by the lack of money, both in the accounts of the state and in its physical form.
A shortage of coins has always been a villain of merchants for whom a lack of money, and the invariably accompanying lack of credit, meant reduced ability to conduct trade. As a result, fiscal strain and mercantile demands resulted in the reintroduction of card money as legal tender in 1729. That year, 400,000 livres worth of cards formed the first in a new set of issuances. The incoming Intendant, Gilles Hocquart, was asked to bring two thousand packs of playing cards from France with him to Canada with which to produce the money.
As with the initial phase from 1685 to 1714, the monetary situation looked secure enough. However, it broke down once again under the strain of war. The Seven Years’ War began in Europe in 1756 and in Quebec it triggered an increased reliance on printing new notes to finance the campaigns underway against the English colonies to their south. State spending in the colony surged from a mere two million livres in 1749 to nearly twenty-eight million livres in 1758. How much of this was purely the result of inflation can only be guessed but it was just one dimension of the economic dislocation underway. As with the previous wars, this occurred alongside falling tax revenues and reduced aid from the mother country. No less than sixteen million livres in paper money was in circulation in Quebec by the time of the British conquest of Canada in 1760, eight times more than existed less than fifty years earlier.
The wartime inflation induced a popular hoarding of precious metal coins. People used the card money to make purchases but relied on what metal coins were around to store wealth. They had good foresight because the paper money traded at discounts of 80%-85% just before they became worthless after the British conquest. An eventual settlement with the French government in 1766 saw the card money converted into French bonds at steep discounts that depended on the year of issuance. This detail hardly matters much as France eventually defaulted on these debts in 1771.
Canada learned an early lesson in the powers and perils of paper money unbacked by any commodity or other collateral. There is no doubt that card money did solve a real problem in Quebec, namely a chronic lack of currency. Indeed, paper money has the benefit of flexibility since the pace of issuance can be regulated according to commercial need and not the output of mines or some arbitrary rule. However, the authorities endowing such money with official value must have the willingness and ability to control its issuance. Whatever the condition of the former, the colonial authorities in Quebec certainly lacked the latter. The result was a monetary system abandoned not once, but twice.
More from the Tontine Coffee-House
Consider reading about the first paper money in China as well as the use of playing cards as money in Germany during the First World War.
1. James Powell. A History of the Canadian Dollar. A History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada, 2005.
2. “Playing-Card Money.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 4 Mar. 2014.
3. Shortt, Adam. The Early History of Canadian Banking. Journal of the Canadian Banker’s Association, 1896.
4. Sumner, William Graham, et al. A History of Banking in All the Leading Nations. Vol. 3, Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin, 1896.
5. Transactions of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. Middleton & Dawson, 1873.