Paper Money

Funding Public Works

Published June 4, 2024 | 5 min read

By Wendell Wolka

One of the more interesting areas of pre-Federal paper money is issues of the 13 colonies (plus Vermont, to be totally inclusive). Given the challenges of travel in the 17th and 18th centuries, the colonies might as well have been on a different planet than their European parents. Coins in the New World were scarce and almost unobtainable. Necessity being the mother of invention, the need for a circulating medium led to some out-of-the-box thinking. The result was the first government-issued paper money in the Western world. The honor of being the first to issue this new and alien form of money belongs to the Province of Massachusetts Bay. In 1690 it beat the prestigious Bank of England by four years to claim that distinction.

Colonial paper money continued to be issued for the better part of a century before fading into history. While Pennsylvania hardly distinguished itself as the rarest issuer of colonial notes overall, it did have some of the more interesting reasons for several of its issues. Most colonies issued notes to pay for military expenses (such as those incurred during the French and Indian War of 1754-63), loans, and more pedestrian purposes, such as simply replacing worn out issues. Pennsylvania, however, also issued notes specifically to address social causes and to aid in the construction of public works.

Helping the Poor

The March 10, 1769, issue was known at the time as “Bettering House Money.” The Act of February 18, 1769, authorized £14,000 in bills for “the Relief and Employment of the Poor in the City of Philadelphia.” The issue comprised 12 denominations between 3 pence and 20 shillings. Hall and Sellers, the company that succeeded the firm of Franklin and Hall, printed the notes. Benjamin Franklin had previously been involved in printing notes for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware—both on his own and in partnership with David Hall (Franklin and Hall)—starting in 1748. 

Franklin retired from the business before the June 15, 1767, issue. William Sellers replaced him and created the firm of Hall and Sellers. The design for this series was pretty standard, with the coat of arms of William Penn, who founded the Province of Pennsylvania in 1681-82, on the face of each note. The smaller denominations (up to 18 pence) were uniface. However, the four largest denominations had a back design that showcased one of Franklin’s printing innovations: so-called nature prints of leaves designed to protect against counterfeiting. Notes from this issue are still available, although most survivors show the effects of circulating over 250 years ago.

While the March 20, 1771, issue was originally intended for the defense of Philadelphia, they came to serve a far more basic need—paving the city’s streets. The issue comprised four denominations: 5, 10, 15, and 20 shillings. Hall and Sellers printed the design in red and black ink on the face and black on the back. The face designs all feature the William Penn coat of arms. The backs show various leaf prints. These can be purchased today.

Lighthouse Construction

The issues of March 30, 1773, and March 25, 1775, were both designated to fund completion of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and other infrastructure, including piers and buoys. Denominations include 4, 6, 14, and 16 shillings for both issues. All notes have William Penn’s coat of arms on the face and a lighthouse vignette on the back. 

The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was originally financed by several lotteries held in Philadelphia in 1767. It remained in operation for nearly 160 years until it collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean due in April 1926. Interestingly, the 14- and 16-shilling denominations from the second issue (1775) were printed with the backs seemingly inverted with respect to the face designs. These are not errors, but for some reason were intentionally printed with that orientation. Notes from these two issues are also available.

Jail Building

The Act of March 18, 1775, authorized £25,000 in notes to be issued for the construction of jails and correctional facilities. Hall and Sellers printed two denominations: 50 shillings and £5. Both are attractively printed with red and black ink. The backs have a vignette of the Walnut Street Workhouse (which served as Philadelphia’s city jail). Legislation authorizing construction of the facility was originally passed in 1773. The first prisoners were moved to the new building, then known as the Walnut Street Jail located at Sixth and Walnut Streets, in 1776. The new facility was intended to relieve overcrowding in the High Street Jail. Like the other notes covered in this article, these are still periodically available in the numismatic market.


A few other notes of this type were issued in other colonies. Most notably, New York City commissioned four series of New York Water Works notes between 1774 and 1776 to fund municipal water system improvements. Each note depicts a steam water pump that was symbolic of the anticipated changes.

Colonial notes offer a myriad of interesting windows into our nation’s past. Every collector should add at least a note or two to their collection that tell the story of our early history.

A version of this article appears in the July 2024 issue of The Numismatist (