Roy and Susan D. ask: We have a paper document (measuring approximately 3 inches by 3 3/4 inches) which purports to be a $20 bill issued by the United States of America, dated 1778, and printed by Hall and Sellers. It has a hand-written number 270350 (could be 270360) in the upper right corner.
Actual wording is as follows: This bill entitles the bearer to receive twenty Spanish milled dollars or the value thereof in gold or silver according to a resolution passed by Congress at Philadelphia, September 26, 1778.
Continental Currency was authorized by the Continental Congress to finance the American Revolution but also was to serve as a convenient medium of exchange. Continental paper money was a financial disaster and by 1780 was devalued, by inflation, to about 1/100th of its face value. (Thomas Jefferson reported that it took a wagon full of this money to buy a suit. He may also have coined the phrase “Not worth a Continental”) . It was also the first decimal currency in the Americas and was the transition to a single, viable monetary system.
The “dollar” was based on Spanish Milled dollar or 8 reales. During the late colonial and confederation period a confusing array of coins circulated in the Thirteen colonies:
One dollar = 6 New England Shillings=8 New York Shillings=7 1/2 Middle States Shillings=6 Virginia Shillings=8 Carolina Shillings=32.5 Georgia Shillings.
After 1789, when the United States Treasury was established, a decimal monetary system was in place but was still based on the Spanish 8 Reales (still legal tender in the United States up to about 1858):
- 1 Dollar= 100 cents
- 12.5 cents = 1 real (pronounced ray-ál)
- 1 Dollar = 8 Reales (ray-ál-ace)
There were eleven issues of Continental Currency and all were printed by Hall & Sellers in Philadelphia. The first issue was dated May 10, 1775 and the last shows the date January 14, 1779. Purportedly, $241,552,780 worth of Continental Currency was issued. Your note is from the 10th issue of September 26, 1778 which consisted of the denominations of 5,7,8,20,30,40,50 and 60 dollars.
The $20 note was printed on thin white paper with black ink. The front of the note shows the Latin motto VI CONCITATE (Driven by Force) on an emblem showing the wind blowing. Back: a Buttercup leaf
After the war, this fiat money issue became drastically devalued and at the end were worth only 1/100th of their face value. The term “Not worth a Continental” remained a catch phrase for something worthless far into the 19th century.
Value depends on grade (condition). Approximate range: $15 – $120 (replicas exist printed on fake, yellowed parchment,- these are worthless).