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Credit in the Colonial American Economy

David T Flynn, University of North Dakota

Overview of Credit versus Barter and Cash

Credit was vital to the economy of colonial America and much of the individual prosperity and success in the colonies was due to credit. Networks of credit stretched across the Atlantic from Britain to the major port cities and into the interior of the country allowing exchange to occur (Bridenbaugh, 1990, 154). Colonists made purchases by credit, cash and barter. Barter and cash were spot exchanges, goods and services were given in exchange for immediate payment. Credit, however, delayed the payment until a later date. Understanding the role of credit in the eighteenth century requires a brief discussion of all payment options as well as the nature of the repayment of credit.


Barter is an exchange of goods and services for other goods and services and can be a very difficult method of exchange due to the double coincidence of wants. For exchange to occur in a barter situation each party must have the good desired by its trading partner. Suppose John Hancock has paper supplies and wants corn while Paul Revere has silver spoons and wants paper products. Even though Revere wants the goods available from Hancock no exchange occurs because Hancock does not want the good Revere has to offer. The double coincidence of wants can make barter very costly because of time spent searching for a trading partner. This time could otherwise be used for consumption, production, leisure, or any number of other activities. The principle advantage of any form of money over barter is obvious: money satisfies the double coincidence of wants, that is, money functions as a medium of exchange.

Money’s advantages

Money also has other functions that make it a superior method of exchange to barter including acting as the unit of account (the unit in which prices are quoted) in the economy (e.g. the dollar in the United States and the pound in England). A barter economy uses a large number of prices because every good must have a price in terms of each other good available in the economy. An economy with n different goods would have n(n-1)/2 prices in total, not an enormous burden for small values of n, but as n grows it quickly becomes unmanageable. A unit of account reduces the number of prices from the barter situation to n, or the number of goods. The colonists had a unit of account, the colonial pound (£), which removed this burden of barter.

Several forms of money circulated in the colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as specie, commodity money and paper currency. Specie is gold or silver minted into coins and is a special form of commodity money, a good that has an exchange value separate from the market value of the good. Tobacco, and later tobacco warehouse receipts, acted as a form of money in many of the colonies. Despite multiple money options some colonists complained of an inability to keep money in circulation, or at least in the hands of those wanting to use it for exchange (Baxter, 1945, 11-17; Bridenbaugh, 153).1

Credit’s advantages

When you acquire goods with credit you delay payment to a later time, be it one day or one year. A basic credit transaction today is essentially the same as in the eighteenth century, only the form is different.2 Extending credit presents risks, most notably default, or the failure of the borrower to repay the amount borrowed. Sellers also needed to worry about the total volume of credit they extended because it threatened their solvency in the case of default. Consumers benefited from credit by the ability to consume beyond current financial resources, as well as security from theft and other advantages. Sellers gained by faster sales of goods and interest charges, often hidden in a higher price for the goods.3

Uncertainty about the scope of credit

The frequency of credit versus barter and cash is not well quantified because surviving account books and transaction records generally only report cash or goods payments made after the merchant allowed credit, not spot cash or barter transactions (Baxter, 19n). Martin (1939, 150) concurs, “The entries represent transactions with those customers who did not pay at once on purchasing goods for [the seller] either made no record of immediate cash purchases, or else there were almost no such transactions.” The results of Flynn’s (2001) study using merchant account books from Connecticut and Massachusetts found also that most purchases recorded in the account books were credit purchases (see Table 1 below).4 Scholars are forced to make general statements about credit as a standard tool in transactions in port cities and rural villages without reference to specific numbers (Perkins, 1980, 123-124).

Table 1

Percentage of Purchases by Type

Purchases by Credit Purchases by Cash Purchases by Barter
Connecticut 98.6 1.1 0.3
Massachusetts 98.5 1.0 0.4
Combined 98.6 1.0 0.4

Source: Adapted from Table 3.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Indications of the importance of credit

In some regions, the institution of credit was so accepted that many employers, including merchants, paid their employees by providing them credit at a store on the business’s account (Martin, 94). Probate inventories evidence the frequency of credit through the large amount of accounts receivable recorded for traders and merchant in Connecticut, sometimes over £1,000 (Main, 1985, 302-303). Accounts receivable are an asset of the business representing amounts owed to the business by other parties. Almost 30 percent of the estates of Connecticut “traders” contained £100 or more of receivables as part of their estate (Main, 316). More than this, accounts receivable averaged one-eighth of personal wealth throughout most of the colonial period, and more than one-fifth at the end (Main, 36). While there is no evidence that enables us to determine the relative frequencies of payments, the available information supports the idea that the different forms of payment co-existed.

The Different Types of Credit

There are three different types of credit to discuss: international credit, book credit, and promissory notes and each facilitated exchange and payments. Colonial importers and wholesalers relied on credit from British suppliers while rural merchants received credit from importers and wholesalers in the port cities and, finally, consumers received credit from the retailers. A discussion starts logically with international credit from British suppliers to colonial merchants because it allowed colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers (McCusker and Menard, 1985, 80n; Martin, 1939, 19; Perkins, 1980, 24).

Overseas credit

Research on colonial growth attaches importance to several items including foreign funds, capital improvements and productivity gains. The majority of foreign funds transferred were in the form of mercantile credit (Egnal, 1998, 12-20). British merchants shipped goods to colonial merchants on credit for between six months and one year before demanding payment or charging interest (Egnal, 55; Perkins, 1994, 65; Shepherd and Walton, 1972, 131-132; Thomson, 1955, 15). Other examples show a minimum of one year’s credit given before suppliers assessed five percent interest charges (Martin, 122-123). Factors such as interest and duration determined for how long colonial merchants could extend credit to their own customers and at what level of markup. Some merchants sold goods on commission, where the goods remained the property of the British merchant until sold. After the sale the colonial merchant remitted the funds, less his fee, to the British merchant.

Relationships between colonial and British merchants exhibited regional differences. Virginia merchants’ system of exchange, known as the consignment system, depended on the credit arrangements between planters and “factors” – middlemen who accepted colonial goods and acquired British or other products desired by colonists (Thomson, 28). A relationship with a British merchant was important for success in business because it provided the tobacco growers and factors access to supplies of credit sufficient to maintain business (Thomson, 211). Independent Virginia merchants, those without a British connection, ordered their supplies of goods on credit and paid with locally produced goods (Thomson, 15). Virginia and other Southern colonies could rely on credit because of their production of a staple crop desired by British merchants. New England merchants such as Thomas Hancock, uncle of the famous patriot John Hancock, could not rely on this to the same extent. New England merchants sometimes engaged in additional exchanges with other colonies and countries because they lacked goods desired by British merchants (Baxter, 46-47). Without the willingness of British merchant houses to wait for payment it would have been difficult for many colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers.

Domestic credit: book credit and promissory notes

Domestic credit was primarily of two forms, book credit and promissory notes. Merchants recorded book credit in the account books of the business. These entries were debits for an individual’s account and were set against payments, credits in the merchant’s ledger. Promissory notes detailed a debt, including typically the date of issue, the date of redemption, the amount owed, possibly the form of repayment and an interest rate. Book credit and promissory notes were substitutes and complements. Both represented a delay of payment and could be used to acquire goods but book accounts were also a large source of personal notes. Merchants who felt payment was either too slow in coming or the risks of default too high could insist the buyer provide a note. The note was a more secure form of credit as it could be exchanged and, despite the likely loss on the note’s face value if the debtor was in financial trouble, would not represent a continuing worry of the merchant (Martin, 158-159).5

Figure 1

Accounts of Samuell Maxey, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
5/28/1748 To Maxey earthenware by Brock 62.00 5/30/1748 By cash & Leather 45.00
10/21/1748 To ditto by Cap’n Long 13.75 8/20/1748 By 2 quintals of fish @6-0-0 [per quintal] 12.00
5/25/1749 To ditto 61.75 11/15/1748 By cash received of Mr. Suttin 5.00
6/26/1749 To ditto 27.35 5/26/1749 By sundrys 74.75
10/1749 By cash of Mr. Kettel 9.75
12/1749 By ditto 18.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.7.

The settlement of debt obligations incorporated many forms of payment. Figure 1 details the activity between Samuell Maxey and Jonathan Parker, a Massachusetts merchant. Included are several purchases of earthenware by Maxey and others and several payments, including some in cash and goods as well as from third parties. Baxter (1945, 21) describes similar experiences when he says,

…the accounts over and over again tell of the creditor’s weary efforts to get his dues by accepting a tardy and halting series of odds and ends; and (as prices were often soaring, especially in 1740-64) the longer a debtor could put off payment, the fewer goods might he need to hand over to square a liability for so much money.

Repayment means and examples

The “odds and ends” included goods and commodity money as well as other cash, bills of exchange, and third party settlements (Baxter, 17-32). Merchants accepted goods such as pork beef, fish and grains for their store goods (Martin, 94). Flynn (2001) shows several items offered as payment, including goods, cash, notes and others, shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Percentage of Payments by Category

Repayment in Cash Repayment in Goods Repayment by note Repayment by Reckoning Repayment by third- party note Repayment by Bond Repayment by Labor


27.5 45.9 3.3 7.5 6.9 0.0 8.9
Mass. 24.2 47.6 2.8 7.5 13.7 0.2 2.3
Combined 25.6 46.9 3.0 7.5 10.9 0.1 5.0

Source: Adapted from Table 3.4 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Cash, goods and notes require no further explanation, but Table 2 shows other items used in payment as well. Colonists used labor to repay their tabs, working in their creditor’s field or lending the labor services of a child or yoke of oxen. Some accounts also list “reckoning,” which occurred typically between two merchants or traders that made purchases on credit from each other. Before the two merchants settled their accounts it was convenient to determine the net position of their accounts with each other. After making the determination the merchant in debt possibly made a payment that brought the balance to zero, but at other times the merchants proceeded without a payment but a better sense of the account position. Third parties also made payments that employed goods, money and credit. When the merchant did not want the particular goods offered in payment he could hope to pass them on, ideally to his own creditors. Such exchange satisfied both the merchant’s debts and the consumer’s (Baxter, 24-25). Figure 1 above and Figure 2 below illustrate this.

Figure 2

Accounts of Mr. Clark, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/27/1749 To Clark earthenware 10.85 11/30/1749 By cash 3.00
4/14/1750 By ditto 1.00
?/1762 By rum in full of Mr. Blanchard 6.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The accounts of Parker and his customer, Mr. Clark, show another purchase of earthenware and three payments. The purchase is clearly on credit as Parker recorded the first payment occurring over two months after the purchase. Clark provided two cash payments and then a third person Mr. Blanchard settled Clark’s account in full with rum. What do these third party payments represent? For answers to this we need to step back from the specifics of the account and generalize.

Figures 1 and 2 show credits from third parties in cash and goods. If we think in terms of three-way trade the answer becomes obvious. In Figure 1 where a Mr. Suttin pays £5.00 cash to Parker on the account of Samuell Maxey, Suttin is settling a debt with Maxey (in part or in full we do not know). To settle the debt he owes Parker, Maxey directs those who owe him money to pay Parker, and thus reduce his debt. Figure 2 displays the same type of activity, except Blanchard pays with rum. Though not depicted here, private debts between customers could be settled on the merchant’s books. Rather than offering payment in cash or goods, private parties could swap debt on the merchant’s account book, ordering a transfer from one account to another. The merchant’s final approval for the exchange implied something about the added risk from a third party exchange. The new person did not pose a greater default risk in the creditor’s opinion, otherwise (we would suspect) they refused the exchange.6

Complexity of the credit system

The payment system in the colonies was complex and dynamic with creditors allowing debtors to settle accounts in several fashions. Goods and money satisfied outstanding debts and other credit obligations deferred or transferred debts. Debtors and creditors employed the numerous forms of payment in regular and third party transactions, making merchants’ account books a clearinghouse for debts. Although the lack of technology leaves casual observers thinking payments at this time were primitive, such was clearly not the case. With only pen and paper eighteenth century merchants developed a sophisticated payment system, of which book credit and personal notes were an important part.

The Duration of Credit

The length of time outstanding for credit, its duration, is an important characteristic. Duration represents the amount of time a creditor awaited payment and anecdotal and statistical evidence provide some insights into the duration of book credit and promissory notes.

The calculation of the duration of book credit, or any similar type of instrument, is relatively straightforward when the merchant recorded dates in his account book conscientiously. Consider the following example.

Figure 3

Accounts of David Forthingham, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
10/1/1748 To Forthingham earthenware 7.75 10/1/1748 By cash 3.00
4/1749 By Indian corn 4.75

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The exchanges between Frothingham and Jonathan Parker show one purchase and two payments. Frothingham provides a partial payment for the earthenware at the time of purchase, in cash. However, £4.75 of debt remains outstanding, and is not repaid until April of 1749. It is possible to calculate a range of values for the final settlement of this account, using the first day of April to give a lower bound estimate and the last day to give an upper bound estimate. Counting the number of days shows that it took at least 182 days and at most 211 days to settle the debt. Alternatively the debt lasted between 6 and 7 months.

Figure 4

Accounts of Joseph Adams, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/7/1747 to Adams earthenware -30.65 11/9/1747 by cash 30.65
7/22/1748 to ditto -22.40 7/22/1748 by ditto 12.40
No Date7 by ditto 10.00

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.4.

Not all merchants were meticulous record keepers and sometimes they failed to record a particular date with the rest of an account book entry.8 Figure 4 illustrates this problem well and also provides an example of multiple purchases along with multiple payments. The first purchase of earthenware is repaid with one “cash” payment sixty-three days (2.1 months) later.9 Computation of the term of the second loan is more complicated. The last two payments satisfy the purchase amount, so Adams repaid the loan completely. Unfortunately, Parker left out the date for the second payment. The second payment occurred on or after July 22, 1748, so this date is the lower end of the interval. The minimum time between purchase and second payment is zero days, but computation of a maximum time, or upper bound, is not possible due to the lack of information.10

With a sufficient number of debts some generalization is possible. If we interpret the data as the length of a debt’s life we can use demographic methods, in particular the life table.11 For a sample of Connecticut and Massachusetts account books the average duration looks like the following.12

Table 3

Expected Duration for Connecticut Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Median lower bound (interval) eo upper bound (months) Median upper bound (interval)
All Values 14.79 6-12 15.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 15.22 6-12 15.99 6-12
0.25-0.50 14.28 6-12 15.51 6-12
0.50-0.75 15.24 6-12 18.01 6-12
0.75-1.00 14.25 6-12 15.94 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.95 6-12 15.07 6-12
10.00+ 7.95 0-6 10.73 6-12

Table 4

Expectation Duration for Massachusetts Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Lower bound median (interval) eo upper bound (months) Upper bound median (interval)
All Values 13.22 6-12 14.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 14.74 6-12 17.55 12-18
0.25-0.50 12.08 6-12 12.80 6-12
0.50-0.75 11.73 6-12 13.08 6-12
0.75-1.00 11.01 6-12 12.43 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.08 6-12 13.88 6-12
10.00+ 14.28 12-18 17.02 12-18

Source: Adapted from Tables 4.1 and 4.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 80.

For all debts in the sample from Connecticut, the expected length of time the debt is outstanding from its inception is estimated between 14.78 and 15.86 months. For Massachusetts the range is somewhat shorter, from 13.22 to 14.87 months. Tables 3 and 4 break the data into categories based on the value of the credit transaction as well. An important question to ask is whether this represents a long- term or a short-term debt? There is no standard yardstick for comparison in this case. The best comparison is likely the international credit granted to colonial merchants. The colonial merchants needed to repay these amounts and had to sell the goods to make remittances. The estimates of that credit duration, listed earlier, center around one year, which means that colonial merchants in New England needed to repay their British suppliers before they could expect to receive full payment from their customers. From the colonial merchants’ perspective book credit was certainly long-term.

Other estimates of duration of book credit

Other estimates of book credit’s duration vary. Consumers paying their credit purchases in kind took as little time as a few months or as long as several years (Martin, 153). Some accounting records show book credit remaining unsettled for nearly thirty years (Baxter, 161). Thomas Hancock often noted expected payment dates, such as “to pay in 6 months” along with a purchase, though frequently this was not enough time for the buyer. Thomas blamed the law, which allowed twelve months for people to make repayments, complaining to his suppliers that he often provided credit to country residents of “one two & more years” (Baxter, 192). Surely such a situation is the exception and not the rule, though it does serve to remind us that many of these arrangements were open, lacking definite endpoints. Some merchants allowed accounts to last as long as two years before examining the position of the account, allowing one year’s book credit without charge, and thereafter assessing interest (Martin, 157).

Duration of promissory notes

The duration of promissory notes is also important. Priest (1999) examines a form of duration for these credit instruments, estimating the time between a debtor’s signing of the note and the creditor’s filing of suit to collect payment. Of course this only measures the duration for notes that go into default and require legal recourse. Typically, a suit originated some 6 to 9 months after default (Priest, 2417-18). Results for the period 1724 to 1750 show 14.5% of cases occurred within 6 months after the initial contraction date, the execution of the debt. Merchants brought suit in more than 60% of the cases between 6 months and 3 years from execution, 21.4% from six to twelve months, 27.4% from one to two years and 14.1% from two to three years. Finally, more than 20% of the cases occurred more than three years from the execution of the debt. The median interval between execution and suit was 17.5 months (Priest, 2436, Table 3).

The duration of promissory notes provides an important complement to estimates of book credit’s term. Median estimates of 17.5 months make promissory notes, more than likely, a long-term credit instrument when balanced against the one year credit term given colonial importers. The estimates for book credit range between three months and several years in the literature to between 13 and 16 months in Flynn (2001) study. Duration results show that merchants waited significant amounts of time for payment, raising the issue of the time value of money and interest rates.

The Interest Practices of Merchants

In some cases credit was outstanding for a long period of time, but the accounts make no mention of any interest charges, as in Figures 1 through 4. Such an omission is difficult to reconcile with the fairly sophisticated business practices for the merchants of the day. Accounting research and manuals from the time demonstrate clearly an understanding of the time value of money. The business community understood the concept of compound interest. Account books allowed merchants to charge higher and variable prices for goods sold on book credit (Martin, 94). While in some cases interest charges entered the account book as an explicit entry in many others interest was an added or implicit charge contained in the good’s price.

Advertisements from the time make it clear that merchants charged less for goods

purchased by cash, and accounts paid promptly received a discount on the price,

One general pricing policy seems to have been that goods for cash were sold at a lower price than when they were charged. Cabel[sic] Bull advertised beaver hats at 27/ cash and 30/ country produce in hand. Daniel Butler of Northampton offered dyes, and “a few Cwt. of Redwood and Logwood cheaper than ever for ready money.” Many other advertisements carried allusions to the practice but gave no definite data. A daybook of the Ely store contained this entry for October 21, 1757: “William Jones, Dr to 6 yds Towcloth at 1/6—if paid in a month at 1/4. (Martin, 1939, 144-145)

Other advertisements also evidence a price difference, offering cash prices for certain grains they desired. Connecticut merchants likely offered good prices for products they thought would sell well as they sought remittances for their British creditors. Hartford merchants charged interest rates ranging from four and one-half to six and one-half percent in the 1750s and 1760s, though Flynn (2001) arrives at different rates from a different sample of New England account books (Martin, 158). Many promissory notes in South Carolina specified interest, though not an exact rate, usually just the term “lawful interest” (Woods, 364).

Estimates of interest rates

Simple regression analysis can help determine if interest was implicit in the price of goods sold on credit though there are numerous technical issues, such as borrower characteristics, market conditions and the quality of the good that make a discussion here inappropriate.13 In general, there seems to be a positive correlation, with the annual interest rates falling between 3.75% and 7%, which seem consistent with the results from interest entries made in account books. There is some tendency for the price of a good to increase with the time waited for repayment, though many other technical matters need resolution.

Most annual interest rates in Flynn’s (2001) study, explicit and implicit, fall in the range of 4 to 6.5 percent making them similar to those Martin found in her examination of accounts and roughly consistent with the Massachusetts lawful rate of 6 percent at the time, though some entries assess interest as high as 10 percent (Martin, 158; Rothenberg, 1992, 124). Despite this, the explicit rates are insufficient on their own to form a conclusion about the interest rate charged on book credit; there are too few entries, and many involve promissory notes or third parties, factors expected to alter the interest rate. Other factors such as borrower characteristics likely changed the assessed rate of interest too, with more prominent and wealthy individuals charged lower rates, either due to their status and a perceived lower risk, or possibly due to longer merchant-buyer relationships. Most account books do not contain information sufficient to judge the effects of these characteristics.

Merchants gained from credit use by charging higher prices; credit required a premium over cash sales and so the merchant collected interest and at the same time minimized the necessary amount of payments media (Martin, 94). Interest was distinct from the normal markups for insurance, freight, wharfage, etc. that were often significant additions to the overall price and represented an attempt to account for risk and the time value of money (Baxter, 192; Thomson, 239).14


Credit was significant as a form of payment in colonial America. Direct comparisons of the number of credit purchases versus barter or cash are not possible, but an examination of accounting records demonstrates credit’s widespread use. Credit was present in all forms of trade including international trade between England and her colonies. The domestic forms of credit were relatively long-term instruments that allowed individuals to consume beyond current means. In addition, book credit allowed colonists to economize on cash and other means of payment through transfers of credit, “reckoning,” and other means such as paying workers with store credit. Merchants also understood the time value of money, entering interest charges explicitly in the account books and implicitly as part of the price. The use of credit, the duration of credit instruments, and the methods of incorporating interest show credit as an important method of exchange and the economy of colonial America to be very complex and sophisticated.


Baxter, W.T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Bridenbaugh, Carl. The Colonial Craftsman. Dover Publications: New York, 1990.

Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Flynn, David T. “Credit and the Economy of Colonial New England.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 2001.

McCusker, John J., and Russel R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Main, Jackson Turner. Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Martin, Margaret. “Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1820.” Smith College Studies in History. Department of History, Smith College: Northampton, Mass. 1939.

Parker, Jonathan. Account Book, 1747-1764. Mss:605 1747-1815. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; Cambridge, Massachusetts

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Price, Jacob M. Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake, 1700-1776. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Priest, Claire. “Colonial Courts and Secured Credit: Early American Commercial Litigation and Shays’ Rebellion.” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (June, 1999): 2412-2450.

Rothenberg, Winifred. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Shepherd, James F. and Gary Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge: University Press 1972.

Thomson, Robert Polk. The Merchant in Virginia, 1700-1775. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1955.

Further Reading:

For a good introduction to credit’s importance across different professions, merchant practices and the development of business practices over time I suggest:

Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth-Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution: 1763-1776. New York: Facsimile Library Inc., 1939.

For an introduction to issues relating to money supply, the unit of account in the economy, and price and exchange rate data I recommend:

Brock, Leslie V. The Currency of the American Colonies, 1700-1764: A Study in Colonial Finance and Imperial Relations. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

McCusker, John J. Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

McCusker, John J. How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Commodity Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States, Second Edition. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2001.

1 Some authors note a small amount of cash purchases as well as small numbers of cash payments for debts as evidence of a lack of money (Bridenbaugh, 153; Baxter, 19n).

2 Presently, credit cards are a common form of payment. While such technology did not exist in the past, the merchant’s account book provided a means of recording credit purchases.

3 Price (1980, pp.16-17) provides an excellent summary of the advantages and risks of credit to different types of consumers and to merchants in both Britain and the colonies.

4 Please note that this table consists of transactions mostly between colonial retail merchants and colonial consumers in New England. Flynn (2001) uses account books that collectively span from approximately 1704 to 1770.

5 In some cases with the extension of book credit came a requirement to provide a note too. When the solvency of the debtor came into question the creditor, could sell the note and pass the risk of default on to another.

6 I offer a detailed example of such an exchange going sour for the merchant below.

7 “No date” is Flynn’s entry to show that a date is not recorded in the account book.

8 It seems that this frequently occurs at the end of a list of entries, particularly when the credit fully satisfies an outstanding purchase as in Figure 4.

9 To calculate months, divide days by 30. The term “cash” is placed in quotation marks as it is woefully nondescript. Some merchants and researchers using account books group several different items under the heading cash.

10 Students interested in historical research of this type should be prepared to encounter many situations of missing information. There are ways to deal with this censoring problem, but a technical discussion is not appropriate here.

11 Colin Newell’s Methods and Models in Demography (Guilford Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction for these techniques.

12 Note that either merchants recorded amounts in the lawful money standard or Flynn (2001) converted amounts into this standard for these purposes.

13 The premise behind the regression is quite simple: we look for a correlation between the amount of time an amount was outstanding and the per unit price of the good. If credit purchases contained implicit interest charges there would be a positive relationship. Note that this test implies forward looking merchants, that is, merchants factored the perceived or agreed upon time to repayment into the price of the good.

14 The advance varied by colony, good and time period,

In 1783, a Boston correspondent wrote Wadsworth that dry goods in Boston were selling at a twenty to twenty-five percent ‘advance’ from the ‘real Sterling Cost by Wholesale.’ The ‘advances’ occasionally mentioned in John Ely’s Day Book were far higher, seventy to seventy-five per cent on dry goods. Dry goods sold well at one hundred and fifty per cent ‘advance’ in New York in 1750… (Martin, 136).

In the 1720s a typical advance on piece goods in Boston was eighty per cent, seventy-five with cash (Martin, 136n). It should be noted that others find open account balances were commonly kept interest free (Rothenberg, 1992, 123).


Citation: Flynn, David. “Credit in the Colonial American Economy”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL