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The Museum of the National Bank is a showcase for visitors to see what a rich history our money has, coming in all shapes and sizes. In room 4 of the Museum, for instance, you can admire the card money that was used during the French Revolution. Card money first made its appearance in the various French and Dutch overseas colonies at the end of the 17th century where it existed as a form of “emergency money”. This “Object of the Month” focuses on these rare cards, the existence of which was often rather short-lived.

Figure 1: A 30-sol card, issued on 14 July 1765 - Copyright: Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada

Figure 1: A 30-sol card, issued on 14 July 1765 – Copyright: Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada

The very first form of paper money in the French colonies appeared in Québec, that was then still known as “Nouvelle-France” or New France. The wages of soldiers stationed there were paid in French money, that had to be imported from the European motherland. In the winter, however, transporting money by boat was hampered by the inclement weather conditions. In 1685, intendant Jacques de Meulles found a creative solution for coping with the acute shortage of money. In each case, he wrote down the sums due on different playing cards. These were accepted as paper money whenever the card was provided with an embossed lily (or fleur-de-lis) with an accompanying crown and bore the signatures of the intendant, governor and treasurer. From then on, this payment voucher could be cashed in for real money as soon as the ships carrying the funds reached mainland Canada.

The system remained in use until the end of 1686, but was later taken up again between 1689 and 1717. The people became more and more familiar with card money and, as a result, it was issued at regular intervals. The total value of the various playing cards in circulation was estimated at around two million pounds. The denomination of some of the playing cards was even fixed at 100 pounds. It was the popularity of paper money that would eventually lead to its (temporary) demise, too.

Owing to the large quantity of paper money put into circulation over the years, its value declined. The end result was that the card money was devalued in 1717. French King Louis XV laid down a rule in a royal decree that the value of the playing cards was only worth half the amount of the coins shipped in from the motherland. After that, the French State took the money out of circulation by buying up all cards.

However, enforcement of the decree did not mean a complete end to this rather peculiar paper money. Upon request from traders, the cards once again acquired a function as a means of payment in 1729. Yet this time, it was not playing cards that were used, but blank cards which sometimes were cut into two or had their corners removed. A full card was given a value of 24 pounds, and a half card was still worth 12 pounds. The size of the card therefore determined the equivalent amount that was attached to it. This new type of paper money was generally accepted in the New World up until the takeover of the French colony by Great Britain.

Figure 2: Card money from Suriname - Copyright Numismatisch Museum van de Centrale Bank van Suriname

Figure 2: Card money from Suriname – Copyright Numismatisch Museum van de Centrale Bank van Suriname

In a large part of Canada as we know it today, the card money that had originally served as an emergency solution became a trusted means of payment in the eyes of the people. In the Dutch colony of Suriname, the advance of card money followed a similar trend.

Like the Canadian variant, Suriname’s paper money bore a signature with a seal of a coat of arms. Originally, the value of the money was fixed at 1, 2.50 and 10 guilders. Later on, extra notes were issued with a different value.

The Suriname paper money was also often made from playing cards, on which we can see the traditional card game illustrations such as kings, jacks, diamonds and clubs. Although there is no sound evidence of this, the pictures on the playing cards probably served as an aid for illiterate people so they could easily determine the value of the money.

The issuance of Suriname card money was not always trouble-free. The early paper money repeatedly had to be covered by a bill of exchange. However, from 1761 onwards, card money  that no longer had any guarantee started to be produced. The governing colonial authorities used the cards to meet the growing demand for money with the result that there was soon a surplus of Suriname cards so the value of the currency plummeted rapidly. Despite the fluctuating exchange rate of the cards, people retained trust in using them. When the colony was occupied by the British, they were also forced to issue new card money so as to avoid a financial deficit.

Figure 3: Bon de confiance, 15 sols, exchangeable for assignats, 1791, Saint-Maixent, France - Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Figure 3: Bon de confiance, 15 sols, exchangeable for assignats, 1791, Saint-Maixent, France – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

When the Dutch regained control over the colony, they sought a solution that would enable them to swiftly meet the population’s currency requirements. This also finally sounded the death knell of Suriname’s card money which was withdrawn altogether as of 31 May 1828. Under the native people, the memory of card money was kept alive through oral tradition. So they invariably referred to the sum of 3.20 guilders as “wan bigi karta”.

The experiment with card money cannot be called an unqualified success. Before long, in the colonies where the card money was used, a budget deficit was solved by producing extra cards. But too big an issue of the cards led to a drop in their value. Card money was eventually taken up again in France, by five or so communes during the French Revolution where they were used as Billets de confiance. These notes were not covered by any guarantee but they could actually be exchanged for assignats, the other type of paper currency that was issued for the first time in this period of French history. The issue of these notes was not without its own problems, either. The State decided to no longer meddle with production of paper money. The cards regained their original function and could only serve the purpose that they still have today, namely for playing a game of cards.

Veronique Deblon
Museum Guide

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