A New Meaning for 'Cash Cards'

Archaeologists have uncovered many strange types of money that have been in circulation over the centuries, but one of the strangest appeared in Quebec during the early years of French colonization in Canada.

New French colonies were dependent upon shipments of coin from France, but the long, dangerous journey across the Atlantic (during which many shipments were lost) along with the numerous wars in which France was involved, often resulted in severe monetary shortages. On top of this, the French Government was not known for its generosity to the new colonies. They had their own economic woes back home. In January of 1685, the Intendant of New France ran out of money and he was forced to find some other way of continuing the operation of the Colonial Government and supporting the troops who protected their new home.

His solution was a simple one: The Intendant used his own credit to back the issue of promissory notes. The notes were issued in 15 sols, 40 sols, and 4 livres denominations and were hand-written on playing cards which had been cut into quarters! The signatures of the Governor and Intendant, plus the seal of the Treasurer impressed in wax, made them legal tender. It quickly became known as 'playing card money'.

The original intention was to place the 'money' into circulation only until the next shipment of coinage was received from France. A formal declaration was made to that effect and also stated that redemption of the 'playing card money' would occur at that time. In anticipation of any reluctance to accept this strange currency, the Intendant announced that a fine of 50 livres would be levied against any merchant who refused to accept the notes or charged a premium against those using it.

The plan was a complete success and the whimsical notes were, as promised, redeemed in September 1685 with the delivery of cash from Europe. However, money ran out again by February 1686, and the 'playing card money' was re-issued under the same terms as before.

The King of France declared in 1699 that all 'playing card money' in circulation must be withdrawn and forbade any future issues. Nevertheless, trade with the odd Colonial cash continued well into 1700, and, despite the decree, popped up again in 1702. Other issues followed in 1703 and 1704. Once again, the King ordered the withdrawal of all 'playing card money' from circulation.

Unfortunately for the Intendant, few records had been kept regarding the various issues and far more cards were presented for redemption than the Colonial Government had anticipated. The Intendant was uable to uphold his promise and the currency lost its credibility. Yet the cards were issued once more. This time, however, the penalties for refusing the money were much greater.

By 1706, possibly as a result of the release of its own first issue of paper notes, the French Government finally accepted the 'playing card money' as legal tender. However, the Governor and Intendant of New France were forced to promise that they would never again release another issue.

During the 10 years from 1718 to 1728, the 'playing card money' was slowly withdrawn from circulation in New France, redeemed as Bills of Exchange drawn in France for half the face value. The cards resurfaced once more in 1729 however, in even greater quantities than before. In 1749, about 1 million livres were still outstanding, and by 1759, there were still 41 million livres in circulation throughout New France, with an additional 40 to 50 million livres in Bills of Exchange still unpaid in France.

Quebec fell to the British in 1759. France renounced its previous obligations and refused any further payments with the result that the money quickly began to devaluate. Britain then entered negotiations with the Government of France in an attempt to arrange the final liquidation of the 'playing card money'. When British traders learned the news, speculative investment into the currency became a common practice.

A settlement was finally reached whereupon the Government of France agreed to pay 25 percent of the face value of the card notes and to fulfill their other colonial obligations.

After 75 years, Canada's 'Playing Card Money' ceased to exist.