Money and Debt
Most people struggled to find financial security in 1800s America, and some lived on the edge of ruin. Borrowers who failed to repay their loans went to debtor’s prison or poorhouses, unless fraternal organizations provided assistance. Money was mostly in the form of paper—bills of exchange or private bank notes. Few had access to hard cash; some relied on family assets, such as silverware. Others bartered. Banks primarily served businesses and the wealthy.
Silver was a reliable asset; it could be easily moved, melted down, or redeemed. The knife and fork set was an important family investment.
From 1790 to 1863, banks, insurance companies, railroads, and factories issued paper money. Complex images, which made forgery more difficult, depicted scenes of the local economy.