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Money of the Early Days

by H. C. Taylor
President, Manitoba Coin Club

Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Canada is a relatively young country. It had no money of its own until one hundred years ago, apart from bills issued by privately owned chartered banks in the early 1800s. For years prior to that time the people had to get along as best they could with a conglomeration of foreign coins from many other countries some brought in by settlers and the balance finding its way here through trade.

Imagine, if you can, the inconvenience and confusion which prevailed because of the lack of small coins, and, particularly, when those which were in circulation British, Spanish, Mexican, American, and of the many European countries, had to be translated in values to the basis of British standard pounds, shillings and pence, because it was not until shortly before Confederation in 1867 that accounts were kept and money transactions made on the basis of our present “decimal” system of currency. As a colony of Great Britain, the home government in London insisted that its money standard be used here, and all foreign money had to be given a stated value in relation to the shilling.

Representative “Tokens” used as currency.
Source: H. C. Taylor

There was little British money actually in circulation. Any which found its way here was usually returned to Britain in payment for goods purchased there or, as was frequently the case, transferred to the stock market in New York when exchange rates were favourable.

The coin in most general use, and around which most of the other foreign coins circulating were assigned a relative value, was the Spanish eight real piece. It was about the size of our silver dollar, and was then worth about fourteen cents. These coins were in general circulation throughout the American continent brought in, for the most part, through trade with the West Indies. The so-called “Spanish dollar” became the yardstick. It was given a nominal value of five shillings British, and all other coins were assigned a stated relative value.

Had there been an adequate supply of small coins, this would have been little more than an inconvenience, but not only were they scarce but those available were usually so badly worn that it was not uncommon for merchants to accept them at weight rather than face value.

It became common practice for merchants to issue “due bills”—small scraps of paper good for a stated amount on the next purchase at their stores—“bon-pour’s” as they were known among the French speaking residents.

To relieve the shortage of coins, large numbers of “tokens,” then in general use in England were shipped to Canada; their use in England having been brought about by the same reason—a severe shortage of government copper money, pennies, half-pennies and farthings. These tokens were turned out mostly by speculators who could make them of scrap copper for about half the cost of face value. They were the size of pennies and half pennies, and were used and accepted by the public and by the merchants as such. It was not long before some enterprising merchants hit upon the idea of having their own tokens made bearing their name and a nominal amount, good in trade for this amount at their stores. Some were made using the firm’s name only practically a “business card.” In any event, these tokens filled a long-felt want here and the practice was soon followed by Canadian merchants.

An often-repeated story is told of a settler who went to a country merchant with one of the “Spanish dollars” to purchase a head of cabbage. After much searching through his money box, the merchant came up with several ragged bits of paper, due-bills issued by other merchants, an assortment of worn copper “tokens” and foreign coins—eighty-nine pieces in all which he produced as change.

Such a situation was, of course, intolerable. The home government in London refused to permit the new colony to issue money of its own, and as an alternative local colonial governments in British North America allowed banks to issue penny and half penny tokens. Upper and Lower Canada united in 1841 to form the “Province of Canada” which in 1858 issued its first official money—one cent, five cent, ten cent and twenty cent pieces, as the home government in London had by then reluctantly agreed to allow this. Nova Scotia followed in 1861 with an issue of one cent and half cent pieces, and New Brunswick a year later.

By that time, the “decimal system” had come into general use in Canada, patterned after that of our American neighbors, although the maritime colonies still based their values on the British standard. The shilling passed at a nominal value of twenty-five cents, and a “York shilling” actually half a shilling, although there was no such unit of money, would be twelve and one half cents hence the need for a one half cent piece, along with twelve one cent pieces, to make change.

When these two maritime colonies joined with Canada to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 there was no longer a need for the small half cent coin. Incidentally, while Nova Scotia ordered four hundred thousand of these half cent coins in 1861 and a similar amount in 1864 from the Royal Mint in England, where all Canadian coins were minted until 1908, New Brunswick did not. However through an error half cents were struck for New Brunswick and included in the first lot for Nova Scotia. They were returned unused, but some must have gotten away as an occasional one is found in the hands of a collector. A New Brunswick one half cent of 1861 is quite a unique piece and now extremely rare and valuable. It is a coin which was never officially in existence.

These are the first official government coins of Canada of each denomination (obverse and reverse sides of each).
Source: H. C. Taylor

Confederation in 1867 disposed of the money problem. All the “tokens” in circulation were recalled by the new government and replaced by official coins. The pennies were worth two cents and the half pennies and “sou”, one cent.

The first Dominion of Canada money appeared in 1870—one and two dollar bills along with the well-known “shinplaster,” a twenty-five cent bill. Coins were of five, ten, twenty-five and fifty cents value and one cent pieces were minted in 1876. The twenty cent piece was not continued. It was issued only in 1858 and as one fifth of a dollar it was intended as a convenient money unit of the newly adopted decimal system. The reason for not adopting the twenty-five cent piece at that time seems to be that twenty-five is not strictly a decimal of one hundred, but by 1870 it had been decided to follow the American standard.

The “Spanish dollars” in use in the early days found their way back into circulation elsewhere, and may frequently be found, although like the old “tokens” they are mostly in the hand of collectors. The tokens have not entirely disappeared. Some turn up here and there, but for the most part are held by collectors. Historians among numismatists have listed some five hundred or more distinct varieties—most of which bear some popular slogan such as “Trade and Commerce” or the likeness of Wellington on a token issued when he was the hero of the Peninsular War. There are some with the name of a merchant and some with merely a date and value.

Early settlers in Manitoba were not so plagued by the confusing money problems experienced by those who preceded them in other parts of our country as money values and supply had become stabilized before settlers came here in large numbers; but “tokens” in use here in the earlier days may still be found. Among those in the collection of a Winnipeg collector is one inscribed, “G. F. Landon, carpenter and builder, est. 1881, 236 Front St. Winnipeg, Telephone 172.” Front Street was afterwards changed to Ida Avenue and in 1915 became Palmerston Avenue. Others were issued for the “American-Abell Engine and Thresher Co., corner Dufferin and Sinclair Streets”—one “O’Connors Hotel, 3.33 Main Street, Winnipeg, good for 10¢ in trade”—“Edisonia Arcade, Winnipeg, good for one cent in trade”—“Darby’s. Cigar Store, 454 Main St., good for 5¢ in trade”—“J. Robinson & Co. Ltd., good for 10¢ at the soda fountain”—one of “E. Penner & Co., general merchants, Gretna, Manitoba, good for $1.00 in trade”—one of “Otto Gaube, Prop. Commercial Hotel, Altona, Man., good for one ...”, and another of “Richman and Shiffer, general merchants, Altona, Man., good for 50¢ in trade”. There were probably many others.

Page revised: 5 October 2012

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