Joshua Greenberg on the Rage for Paper Money and Monetary Knowledge in Early America

Bank Notes and Shinplasters

For many Americans, the question–What is a dollar worth?–may seem bizarre, if not redundant. Fluctuating international exchange rates, highly volatile crypto-currencies, counterfeit money, these are all things the average American hears about on the news, but rarely thinks about on a day-to-day basis. Even the most enthusiastic Bitcoin supporters will likely readily admit they prefer to conduct the majority of their daily transactions in a currency whose value is relatively stable, and backed by the government. And while fewer and fewer of those transactions take place using actual paper money, the fact is, the U.S. dollar remains the primary currency in which goods are quoted, traded, and payments settled not only in the United States, but around the globe.

This was not the case two-hundred years ago when Americans were obliged to live and transact in a world filled with upwards of 10,000 unique bank notes tied to different banks of various trustworthiness. This number does not even include the plethora of counterfeit bills and countless shinplasters issued by un-regulated merchants, firms, and municipalities. In this month’s episode, our guest, Joshua Greenberg explains the incredible amount of monetary knowledge required of Americans to participate in this highly volatile and chaotic market economy. An extensive monetary knowledge was necessary not just for financiers, merchants, and others operating at a high-level of economic activity, but also those who may never have had occasion to step foot inside a bank themselves, and yet, were nevertheless compelled to constantly evaluate for themselves the value and authenticity of the paper money being handed to them or risk losing out.

Check out the episode here!

Joshua R. Greenberg the editor of Commonplace: the Journal of Early American Life. He is the author of Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic.


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