This Is What NYC’s First Currency Looked Like

William Bradford, New York’s first printer, arrived in the North American colonies in November 1685 at the age of 22. Settling initially in Pennsylvania, he established a printing shop in Oxford, near Philadelphia, where he plied his trade for the next seven years. After repeatedly running afoul of the Quaker authorities, however, he was invited by the Province of New York to come to the colony to establish its first public printing press. He arrived in Manhattan in 1693, opening his new business at what is now 81 Pearl Street (today, a bar and grill). His was the only press in New York until 1726, when his former apprentice, John Peter Zenger, established his own printing firm.

During his long years in business, Bradford was responsible for many printing milestones in New York, including publishing the colony’s first book (1693), legal statutes (1694), newspaper (1725) and map (1731). The New York Public Library holds copies of all the aforementioned items, along with the first paper money circulated in the colony, indented bills dating from 1709, also printed by Bradford.

The term “indented bill” derives from the stub cut from each note, which left an irregular, wavy edge. Provided it fit the corresponding stub kept on file by the government, such bills could be redeemed by the holder for coin in the amount of the stated denomination. New York was only the third colony to issue paper currency, following Massachusetts in 1690 and South Carolina in 1703.

Bradford’s indented bills can be viewed along with 250 other rare and unique items from the Library’s research collections as part of the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures. The free show (which requires no currency, just curiosity) opens Friday, September 24, 2021.

As noted previously, Bradford’s early years in Pennsylvania were marked with controversy. In 1692, he was arrested and charged with printing a seditious broadside as well as with violating a Parliamentary Act, which stipulated that publications must include the printer’s name in the imprint.

At the ensuing trial, Bradford conducted his own defense, arguing that the jury should decide not only whether he had printed the offending material but also whether the subject matter was actually subversive. While his defense strategy—an early argument for freedom of speech—was certainly ingenious, it was a fortuitous mishap that likely resulted in his acquittal. Keen on identifying Bradford as the printer of the offending broadside, the prosecution introduced as evidence the forme of type from which the work had been printed. As the jury foreman began to pass the type around for inspection, however, it inadvertently fell to the floor, landing in a jumbled heap, thus destroying any proof of Bradford’s culpability.

Bradford retired in 1744, at the age of 81, having worked in the printing trade for six decades. He died in 1752 and was laid to rest in the graveyard at Trinity Church. His legacy as a printer continued with the activities of his son Andrew and grandson William, both of whom enjoyed notable careers as printers during the 18th century. Today, Bradford is rightfully remembered as “the pioneer printer of the Middle colonies.”

This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library’s research collections. The objects and the stories behind them are meant to inspire, spark curiosity, and encourage deeper thinking about our history and world—we’ll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.

The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.

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