Abstract: Making Change: Money and Credit in Eighteenth-Century Commerce

John Smail


This paper explores two aspects of the commercial world of eighteenth-century England by looking at the process and history of making change. Making change is always potentially awkward but it posed particular problems in the eighteenth century because of the relatively undeveloped nature of the financial system underpinning commerce and the shortage of cash. The first of these is apparent in the changing ways in which commercial people balanced their accounts during the course of the century, for it was only by the end of the period that merchants or manufacturers began regularly to remit payments in bills drawn on their banker for the exact amount of the invoice. Earlier in the century, recourse to bankers was much more rare, and thus payments were often rendered in bills of the approximate amount which left a balance that had to be settled by periodic payments of small amounts of cash. Tracing the history of the changing practices for making change through a comparative analysis of different regions and industries will help to illuminate the spread of more sophisticated financial networks as well as illustrating the ways in which the financial system structured the environment in which businesses operated. The second issue is apparent in the trouble that manufacturers took to obtain the cash necessary to pay their workers. Of particular interest are accounts that can be found in many extant ledgers with individuals who can best be described as "cash merchants" in that they supplied manufacturers with cash in return for bills of exchange. Manufacturers typically paid a premium for such services, but little is known about the individuals who supplied these relatively large quantities of coin or about the extent to which the pursuit of cash was linked to political preference and influence.