Cod Currency

Before cold, hard cash became common in Newfoundland, salty fish served as the currency of choice.

Published September 8, 2015

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

When greenbacks or ducats are scarce, people find other forms of currency to exchange. This might be shells in India or tobacco in Virginia. For centuries in Newfoundland, the primary unit of currency was salted cod.

As early as the 17th century, fishing families in colonial Newfoundland bought food and supplies throughout the year from their local merchants on the strength of their future cod catches. Inshore fishing boats harvested the fish during the cod’s summer migration to capelin feeding grounds. The Newfoundlanders cured and delivered barrels of the salted fish to settle their accounts, after paying their hired hands a share. In the meantime, the merchant would act as a local bank, enacting transactions among customer tabs.

“The catch was recorded on the books in quintals, each of which was 112 pounds [51 kilograms] of cod,” says historian Jeff Webb of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “If there was a surplus, the family could take it in supplies or in cash, so there were always some coins circulating.”

While salmon or firewood could also offset credit, cod was the primary export of the island, and the merchants would sell it on to an international fish buyer in return for flour and other supplies. The lower moisture content of the salted fish gave it a longer shelf life on the docks of Portugal, Greece, and other destinations.

Some fishing families lived in arrears their entire lives, carrying their consumer debt like the balance on a modern credit card. The system provided a safety net during the rough years, but one merchant having a lien on a family’s catches created power imbalances—the family couldn’t turn to another merchant who might have better prices on goods. In the autumn, the merchant would determine both the price of fish and the grade of its quality.

Cash wages were introduced to workers who constructed roads, railways, and military bases during the Second World War, and Newfoundlanders quickly preferred the money to credit. Finally, in 1944, the Newfoundland government passed legislation prohibiting payment in kind. The stamp that commemorates this currency system predates Newfoundland’s entry into Canadian confederation; still, it has never been demonetized and can be used for postage to this day, if you can find one.