Money and Debt

Political Money Changers (in front of the National Bank), 1833

The National Bank was controversial, revealing tensions between the North, South, and West. When President Andrew Jackson failed to renew its charter, economic chaos ensued.

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.

Ancient Order of United Workmen certificate, 1888

Most individuals had little insurance or economic security. Fraternal groups and craft guilds assisted during hard times, but for a fee. The poor relied on public welfare or private charity.

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“Ruin” from the board game “Game of Life,” invented 1860

“Ruin” from the board game “Game of Life,” invented 1860

The “ruin” square from the Game of Life, one of the earliest board games played by Americans, indicated the fateful consequences of bad decisions. 

Hard times token, about 1834, Scovill Manufacturing Company

“Hard times tokens” were used during financial crises, when regular money was scarce. This one mocked President Andrew Jackson for his economic policies.

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Polly Salmon’s memorandum book, 1785–1788

Salmon’s book accounted for expenses she incurred as a Boston shopkeeper when she purchased gloves and other articles from local merchants.

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Soup tureen with almshouse, 1820, Boston

While many American entrepreneurs saw business opportunities in credit and speculation, most people struggled to find and maintain financial security in America during the 1800s. Other Americans even lived their lives on the edge of ruin. Banks primarily served businesses or the wealthy and few people had access to hard cash. Instead, many people relied on family assets, such as silverware, or bartered for goods and services. Borrowers unable to repay their loans often went to poor houses or debtor’s prison, unless benevolent societies or fraternal organizations provided assistance. This soup tureen is decorated with a medium dark blue transfer that depicts an almshouse in Boston from about 1820. Though the image here presented the almshouse as a place of elegant refuge, it was a destination many debtors dreaded during the nineteenth century.

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Man’s pocketbook, 1812

The larger size of a man’s purse fit what it contained—bills of exchange as well as private bank and promissory notes.

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Miser purse, mid-1800s

Men and women both used this type of purse. The bag had a small opening that restricted access to coins and discouraged reckless spending.

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Silver was a reliable asset; it could be easily moved, melted down, or redeemed. The knife and fork set was an important family investment.

Silverware case, mid-1700s

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.

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863

Private bank notes, 1790–1863