Paper Trail

As many of us get ready to travel for the holidays, we prepare by buying plane tickets, arranging for pet sitters, getting the oil changed in the car, making sure the passports are up to date, and a plethora of other little tasks that need done before traveling out of state or out of country. Have the plants been watered? Is someone picking up the mail?

One task that we do today to prepare for travel still harkens back to the grand tours of the 17-1800s: telling your bank you’ll be traveling.

So in the days before wifi, internet, paypal, credit cards, ATMs, telephones and even telegraphs, how did people travel from one country to another, and how did they access their money?


First of all, we need to keep a few things in mind. For the most part, it was only wealthy people who had the luxury of travel. The more money you had, the further afield you could go. Middle class people usually stayed within their own country, and poor people usually didn’t leave their hometown.

Second, there wasn’t a bank on every block like there is now. Large towns might have one or two; villages probably didn’t have any at all.

And third–and probably most importantly–banks really only dealt with very wealthy people. The average person on the street wouldn’t have a bank account until sometime in the 1900s, as wages increased and access to credit expanded in the 1920s.

So, say you were a wealthy person preparing to go on a grand tour in the 1830s. This was common for young men between 18-25–think of it as a gap year. Today, a person who had graduated high school might take a year off to work or travel before buckling down at university to study for their future. Similarly, young men who hadn’t quite come into their inheritance yet would travel to gain experience and culture before settling down to marriage and inheriting their big family houses, managing lands and tenants and businesses. This was considered an essential part of their education, much as study abroad is today highly encouraged for high school and college students–if they can afford it.

Popular destinations were France and Italy, but Switzerland, Spain, and what is now Germany, Belgium, and Holland were also popular. Eastern Europe, with it’s history of unrest, was not considered worthy of exploration, but of course the destinations would depend on the current political climate and who was fighting who at the time.


Say that you are Lord Darcy and you’re about to go on your big grand tour. You probably won’t be traveling alone. For starters, some of those roads aren’t very safe, and for another it’s more fun to travel with friends.

Before you leave, you’ll contact the family solicitor, who will likely make most of the arrangements. A solicitor (or lawyer) would see to it that you have all the necessary travel documents, like passports or identity papers in the necessary languages. He’ll also contact the bank to tell them that you are leaving, and may provide them with a list of places you intend to visit, so they can verify where to send the funds. He and/or the bank may also write ahead to the major banks in the cities you plan to visit (let’s just say your journey takes you through Paris, Florence, and Rome) so they will know to expect you.

The solicitor will also make sure you have a letter of credit from the bank, which will serve to verify your identity when you arrive, and will list how much you are worth and what your credit limit is.

In addition to the identity papers and letter of credit, you’ll also want to carry letters of introduction, from the most well-connected people you know. Sometimes these letters were addressed to a specific person. For example, if you are traveling to Rome to meet your father’s old friend that he’s no longer in contact with, who will hopefully help you make useful business connections, but your father has passed away, then you might carry a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, or from someone else whose name that old friend would recognize.

Or you might have a general letter stating your name, that you’re the son of so-and-so, and you’re a good, honorable person that the reader can do business with. The writer will probably say how long they’ve known you and how good to them you are. Honestly, it’s much like the letters of reference sent along with college applications today.

The last document you might have to help you on your way would be something like our Power of Attorney paperwork today, giving you license to act in business for another person (usually someone like a father, godfather, uncle, etc).

All of these papers would be kept in your wallet (yes, they were much larger then, a bit bigger than the envelopes we send letters in today), and would be presented at banks, to landlords, or to anyone you might need to do business with.

But how would the banks know that these letters were authentic?

Well, a good deal of it depended on the manager “trusting their gut.” If they had a good feeling about you and the paperwork lined up, then you got your money. Letters of Credit usually came from big banks (for example, the Bank of England), or were endorsed by those larger banks. If the banker didn’t recognize the bank (say, The Main Street Bank, Nowhere, England) then you’ll have a problem.

This is also why you would have those letters of introduction, and have your lawyer handle everything prior to your departure. The more official you appear on paper, the more likely the local bank will be accommodating.

Cash or Check? 

In the 17-1800s, bank notes were exactly that–notes from your bank worth a specific amount. In the early days, they could be signed over. In fact, they operated more like a cashier’s check than the more familiar cash of today.

Of course, regular personal checks were also an option, provided you had the documents to back them up.

The Budget Tour

But what about those poor and middle class people? What if something happened, and they were required to travel?

If they were well placed enough to get any of the documents or papers listed above, then they would do it. But more likely we’re talking about someone traveling with a single bag that contains most of their worldly goods, including most, if not all, of their personal wealth. It would be mostly in coins, scattered and hidden over their person to try to discourage thieves, just as travelers today are advised to break up their money between their wallet, a hidden pocket, a bra, and shoe, etc. They were easy targets for thieves, even if the pay off wasn’t as high as with our fictional Lord Darcy.

Conversion Rates

The prevalence of coinage in this time did have one advantage–it made it easier to travel from country to country, especially in port towns and places on trade routes that saw a good deal of foreign traffic.

If an Englishman wanted to pay for a hotel in Paris, he would use a coin–pennies, ha’pennies, shillings, etc. But coins, at their heart, are bits of metal. A penny’s worth of copper. So he could go to an inn, and the innkeeper would probably have some sort of scale, and he could convert X number of English coins into their equivalent in francs.

Lower class people were also more likely to rely on the barter system. They might chop wood for a farmer in exchange for sleeping in the barn, or trade something from their country for dinner.

We see these patterns repeated in the US in there first century of its existence. No longer dependent on the English pound, individual states were given permission to print their own currency. Unfortunately, this was an economic nightmare. A dollar in Virginia could be worth a drastically different amount in New York, and because most of this currency was paper, it wasn’t anywhere near as easy to convert. Most establishments wouldn’t take currency from other states, and early Americans relied heavily on trade and barter when they traveled, unless they were very wealthy and could afford the exchange rates and the hassles they created. This created wildly different economies from one state to another, and much instability throughout the country. Despite the objections of some, the federal government did finally have to step in and issue a federal currency.

A similar problem occurred during the Civil War and reconstruction, as the south issued its own currency. The Confederate dollar was subject to wild inflation that contributed to the fall of the army as supplies became ever harder to procure and pay for. One could argue that the economy of the South still hasn’t fully recovered from the Civil War, nearly 175 years later.

So that’s a rough idea of how our Lord Darcy and his contemporaries might have traveled, from a bureaucratic perspective.

Do you have questions about the past you want answered? Leave a comment below!

Further reading:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (The first half of this book deals a great deal with money and debt and illustrates it very well)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee

Like what you see? Check out La Maupin.

1 thought on “Paper Trail”

  1. Interesting trip back to the past. One thing we can do in these days is get a credit card in the currency of the country to which we visit as to avoid the currency exchanges and rates and tracking our ‘Gee. how much is that in USD?’

    Happy Travels.


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