AskDefine | Define shinplaster

Dictionary Definition

shinplaster n : paper money of little value issued on insufficient security

User Contributed Dictionary



Probably coined during the American War of Independence (1775–1783): Named because of its resemblance to, and suitability for makeshift use as, a bandage for dressing the shin.


  1. In the context of "historical|US|Australian|,|and|New Zealand|_|informal": An essentially worthless note of paper money.
  2. In the context of "historical|Canadian|_|informal": A 25¢ banknote.


    • 1860: John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, Third Edition, SHI — SHO, p402 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company; London: Trübner and Company)
      Shinplaster. A cant term for a bank-note or any paper money, and especially such as has depreciated in value. The term is said to have arisen during the Revolutionary war. After the continental currency had become almost worthless, an old soldier who possessed a quantity of it, which he could not get rid of, very philosophically made use of it as plasters to a wounded leg.
       The people may whistle for protection, and put up with what shinplaster rags they can get. — N. Y. Tribune, Dec. 3, 1845.
                What’s become of all the specie —
                 Where are all the dollars gone !
                Nothing but shinplasters greasy
                 Do our meagre pockets own. — Comic Song.
       Hope’s brightest visions absquatulate with their golden promises before the least cloud of disappointment, and leave not a shinplaster behind. — Dow’s Sermons, Vol. I. p. 309.
    • 1892: William Shepard Walsh, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, p245 (J.B. Lippincott Co.)
      Now, this means a plaster, and the word plaster or shinplaster is a well-known slang term for a paper dollar, used especially during the Revolutionary and…
    • 1970: James Henry Gray, The Boy from Winnipeg, p108 & (Macmillan of Canada)
      I had never heard of a 50-cent shinplaster. We got lots of the little 25-cent paper…
      “My God, boy, this is no shinplaster, this is a fifty-dollar bill!”
    • 1988: Henry Clay, The Papers of Henry Clay, p167 (The University Press of Kentucky; ISBN 0813100593 (10), ISBN 978-0813100593 (13))
      Remark in Senate, March 27, 1838. Reports that the people of Hampshire County, Va. (W.Va.), hearing it denied that one of the local mail-route contractors was “deluging the country with shinplasters [Remark in Senate, March 5, 1838],” have sent him one such shinplaster with the request that it be referred to the Committee on Finance to support the allegation in their petition. Clay so moves. Motion carried. Cong. Globe, 25 Cong., 2 Sess., 268. See ibid., 214; Remark in Senate, March 5, 1838. The shinplaster in question, signed by Lucius W. Stockton, the local mail contractor, was for 25 cents and was good only for local stage fare.


Extensive Definition

Shinplaster was a common name for paper money of low denomination circulating widely in the frontier economies of the 19th century. These notes were in various places issued by Banks, merchants, wealthy individuals and associations, either as banknotes, or circulating IOUs. They were often a variety of token intended to alleviate a shortage of small change in growing frontier regions. They were sometimes used in company shop economies or peonages in place of legal tender.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name comes from the quality of the paper, which was so cheap that with a bit of starch it could be used to make paper-mâché-like plasters to go under socks and warm shins.
A book roughly contemporary with the term, John Russell Bartlett's The Dictionary of Americanisms (New York, 1849), defines a shinplaster as "A cant term for a bank-note, or any paper money. It probably came into use in 1837, when the banks suspended specie payment, and when paper money became depreciated in value." Then the book quotes the New York Tribune of December 3, 1845: "The people may whistle for protection, and put up with what shinplaster rags they can get."

United States

Shinplasters circulated in the United States from 1837 to 1863, during the period known as the "Free Banking Period."


In Canada, the term shinplaster was widely used for 25-cent paper monetary notes which circulated in the 19th century and early 20th century.


Shinplasters or Calabashes (as they were known in southern Queensland), were a feature of the vast Squatters' pastoral enterprises, and often circulated in the towns of the bush alongside and in place of legal tender. These private IOUs circulated widely, at times making up the bulk of cash in circulation, especially in the 1840s and 50s. (Dansie p63)
In some places they formed the core of a company shop economy (Truck system), circulating as private currencies. They were often of such low quality that they could not be hoarded, and shopkeepers off the property would not take them, as they would deteriorate into illegibility before they could be redeemed.
There are tales of unscrupulous shopkeepers and others baking or otherwise artificially aging their Calabashes given as change to travelers so that they crumbled to uselessness before they could be redeemed. (Dansie p63)
As commerce and trade grew in centres such as Toowoomba, more and more Calabashes were issued, and more and more merchants, squatters and others engaged in transactions were forced to give their 'paper' in change or as payment for goods and services. (Dansie p64)


  • Dansie, Robert, "Morass to Municipality", Darling Downs Institute Press, Toowoomba, 1985
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