Now that we’re traveling again, here’s a pro tip for those who wish to stroll the heather of the Scottish highlands or hit the Edinburgh Fringe festival – pay attention to your money. Scotland uses the same coins as the rest of the UK, but they have their own folding money, which look quite different from the notes used south of Hadrian’s wall. The most important distinction, however, is that they’re not legal tender. My name’s…
In the before-time, in the long long ago, early man bartered for their individual needs. If you needed, say, a stone ax to cut wood and you had a nice giant ground sloth pelt, Bob’s your uncle. Assuming the guy with the extra ax needed a sloth pelt just then. I did double-check that man and sloth lived at the same time, then I remembered a survey that found that 41% of respondents thought humans and dinosaurs lived together like the freaking Flintstones and I had to go take a despair nap. Bartering had a major drawback, in that you had to find someone who needed what you have and had what you needed and the exact same time, and what if you need isn’t worth what you have, like you need a new water jug, but all you have to trade is a goat? Water jug ain’t worth a goat. That’s where commodity currencies develop, usually with the staple crop of the region, wheat in Europe, rice in Asia, you get the idea. Now the value of each item is how much of that commodity it’s worth, and you can pay for the water jug with a correct portion of grain, rather than giving up a goat that could give you milk for years.
As people advanced and settled down, they chose particular items to attach specific value to, an intermediary item in the process. The example cited are cowrie shells, which in the modern era appear mostly in the form of necklaces worn by boys with frosted hair in the 90’s. By the by, if we’re so nostalgic for the 90’s, how come nobody’s trying to bring back Malibu Musk? Cowrie shells were first used as money about 1200 BCE and it wasn’t a local phenomenon – cowrie was cash throughout Europe, Asia, Oceania, and western Africa. Why shells, though? They had a lot going for them, small, easy to carry and handle, and built to last, unlike our paper currency, which can only handle an accidental trip through the washing machine so many times before it’s pulp. In North America, mollusk material was turned into wampum, gorgeously hand-carved tubular beads. When you look at them and think of how long they must take to make with hand tools, you’d say, yeah, that’s worth recompense.
Many early currencies lived up to Teddy Roosevelt’s axiom ‘do what you can, where you are, with what you have.’ For the Solomon Islands east of Papua New Guinea – who made an appearance in ep Meeting New Peoples from way back in 2018, for the fascinating fact that 10% of these dark-skinned people naturally have blue eyes and blonde hair with NO European blood in the mix – that means dolphin teeth. The dolphin was an important resource for the island, providing them with meat and fat as well as the teeth. They practiced ‘drive hunting,’ herding the animals into one spot for the kill, in this case by means of banging rocks together underwater to jam the dolphins’ echolocation. The dolphins teeth were used as currency, for bride price, as jewelry, or sold for cash.
Did I say “were”? I meant, are. Despite environmentalists trying to kibosh the dolphin hunts, the teeth have only increased in value, value being a relative term, since that increase was $.14 in 2004 to about $0.70 in 2013. The practice was thought to have stopped in the 19th century, possibly after missionaries started coming around and mucking about in people’s lives. 100 years later, around 1948, the hunt was on again, and by the mid-1960s several thousand dolphins were being killed every year, plus others being captured and sold to marine entertainment parks. In 2010, the conservation group Earth Island Institute agreed to pay the people of the largest island to *not hunt dolphins, but within a few years, the Solomon Islanders resumed, saying Earth Island Institute failed to deliver. According to a study, “…from 1976 to 2013 documented a minimum total of 15,454 dolphins killed by the Fanalei villagers alone.” But on the plus side, none of the hunted species is listed as vulnerable or endangered, so at least there’s that.
What if you live in a place that has no copper, silver, or gold to make coins? Again, use what you’ve got, and if all you’ve got is limestone, you make stone money. And apparently, you make it big. Picture a stone wheel, like you’d see a cartoon caveman carve. Now make it over 6ft across. That’s a rai stone. I think I first learned about them in a National Geographics Kids magazine back in the 80’s. Do they still print that? Come with me now to the petite Micronesian island of Yap and the largest money ever used in the world.
Centuries ago, some Yapese people sailed to Palau island, no meant feat at 250mi/400km away and there they discovered aragonite, kind of a cousin to limestone. I think. I wanted to find a definition of aragonite that made its appeal instantly obvious, but like a ruffled bit of string tied in the middle, I’m afraid not. Anyway, whatever aragonite is, it’s a good thing and the Yapese wanted to take it home. They carved huge chunks of stone out, in circles that would roll with a hole for a spoke to go through, genius in its simplicity and no less impressive in scale. Then they moved the stones, some weighing 6 tons, 250 miles back on bamboo rafts pulled by a canoe. This was dodgy business at best and a lot of people were hurt or killed in the doing of it. All that effort and risk just fed into the rai stones’ value.
The value of a stone was determined by its physical characteristics, its provenance, like how many people died getting it here, and interestingly, if anyone of rank owned it before. Stones that had been used by important people gained value almost by proxy, something that didn’t happen for your average Joe. While the stones feel like something from prehistory and no new stones have been quarried since 1931, they’re still used today, albeit not to the extent they once were. Modern money is used to handle most workaday purchases, but large purchases like houses are still sometimes paid for with aragonite stones. Do you have to roll your 6 ton stone to the bank? Nope. Even when a stone changes hands, it stays put most of the time, because, again, 6 tons. Besides, everyone knows who owns which stones and they keep an eye out for each others’. That plus the heft of the thing makes the larger stones essentially theft-proof. If someone manages to steal one without being noticed, let him have it. I’m not even mad, I’m impressed.
If you want something more standardized and controllable than seashells, and more practical than giant stone wheels, you’ll have to give people an alternative. Metal items used as money can be traced back to Babylon pre-2000 BCE, but standardized, official coinage didn’t roll in until the 7th century BCE in the kingdom of Lydia, present-day Turkey. These coins were made of the awesome-sounding electrum, a natural mixture of gold and silver, bearing the royal symbol of a lion and shaped…like a bean. Soon official currency began appearing elsewhere, and else-what. Lots of different materials have been used, metal and paper, of course, but also leather, starting around the 6th century BCE and showing up in early Rome, Carthage, and Gaul. The Chinese emperor Wudi of 1st century BCE created currency out of skins from his personal collection of white stags. It was fringed and decorated with elaborate designs. Leather money was used in Russia into Peter the Great’s reign (1682–1725 CE).
Speaking of China, it is widely believed to be the birthplace of paper money, during the 10th century CE reign of Emperor Zhenzong. This paper was made from the bark of mulberry trees. It would take another 800 years before the idea spread widely and even then, these bills were not money-money, but rather promissory notes—promises to pay specified amounts of gold or silver—which were key in the later development of banks.
Moving back to coinage, we go now to the country that borrowed from China the way Rome “borrowed” stuff, piffling things like democracy and gods, from Greece – Japan, specifically the Japan of the 8th century, the Nara period. Remember back in ‘05-ish when the US treasury tried to get us onboard with the Washington dollar coin and we, as a nation, in the most united stance we have ever exhibited, said ‘naw, we’re good.’? That’s coin money in ancient Japan, except the Nara and subsequent Heian governments kept after the idea for about two hundred years.
Things started off well enough in 708 when the first copper coins were introduced, round affairs with a square hole and four written characters, also known as exactly what Chinese coins looked like. Government officials and workers were paid in copper coins, and regular folk could use it to pay taxes. Laws were passed to make sure people started using the official coins, like banning other forms of metal money, as well as to stop hoarders, because humans are grubby little creatures on a good day. You could buy anything with the new copper coins, like a higher rank at court,,,which is what a lot of people did.
The thing about making money, in the government sense, if you have to be careful how much you make. Too much money on the ground and it loses it’s value and you get hyperinflation like post-war Germany, where it was more economical to use money as wallpaper or to literally burn it than to try to spend it. Guess what happened in Japan? Can’t sneak anything past you. Sure enough, there got to be too many coins in circulation, folks were still trading commodities, like rice and silk, then something frustratingly familiar happened – the 735 smallpox epidemic wrecked the supply chains, driving up prices and exacerbating inflation. The government wasn’t solely to blame for there being too many copper coins. There were a shed load of counterfeit coins passing from hand to hand. How many in a shed load? According to a court document from 760, as much as 50% of all coins were fake. A decently-skilled blacksmith could knock out copper coins all day.
The government is responsible for their attempt to correct the problem though – a coin worth 10 times the value…which immediately made the problem worse. So, desperate to stop the great wave of inflation,,,they just kept doing the same thing over and over again with the exact same result – the new coins would further depress the value of the old coins, until another new coin depressed them, too. Basically, it was a right mess. Then they started to run out of copper, so they made the coins smaller and smaller with each new iteration, with less and less copper, until eventually coins were 90% lead and only 10% copper. Don’t laugh, the US penny is only 2.5% copper.
While I’m bringing up the penny, why is it still a thing? No one like them; you can’t use them in vending machines; cashiers hate the sight of more than, say, 6 pennies at once – less than ⅕ of retail transactions are cash anyway; they’re made of zinc, the mining of which is an environmental mugging, whether it’s domestic or imported; and they literally cost twice as much to produce than they are worth, 2.1 times, actually. Why can’t we be more like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden? Okay, rant over.
By the middle of the Heian Period (794 to 1185), people had given up on coin money and the government did too. It would be another 5 centuries before Japan tried coins again. basically stopped using them. That yen, introduced in 1871 by the Meiji government – which I cannot hear mentioned without thinking of Roruni Kenshin, the reverse-blade sword and the cross-shaped scar – making it one of the oldest still-extant currencies going, so I guess they worked it out eventually. The word yen means “round object,” an appropriate description of the system’s coins. The Meiji government introduced the yen in the hopes of stabilizing Japan’s economy and it worked right up to the start of WWII, where a lot of stuff got real, real fast. But after a lengthy post-war recovery, the yen is now the most traded currency in Asia and the third most traded in the world, according to Investopedia.
The yen, which translates to “round object,” isn’t the oldest still-used currency. Another top contender is, for better or worse, the Russian ruble, which dates all the way back to the 13th century, though it wasn’t official until the 18th century court of Peter the Great. How was the new season of The Great, btw? Did the writers learn to use swear words correctly? Hit me on soc meds. The ruble has changed a lot in its 300 years, and it might want to brace for another change, I imagine. There was even a brief time when Russia didn’t appear on the global map, and Russian rubles weren’t in circulation. During Soviet Union times, it was called the Soviet ruble, before going back to or moving on with the new ruble in 1993. So count its exact age however you like. It actually makes me no nevermind.
One universal across the globe is that if there is something of value, people will counterfeit it. It’s just what we do, lads. Counterfeiting dates to the invention of money and no iteration was safe. Forgery proved such a problem that governments would lay down harsh penalties for it. Counterfeit money in China in the 14th century and you might get your head snicked off; in Nara Japan, you’d get 200 strokes with a rod and the person who turned you in got all your stuff; in Britain you might get burned at the stake while in the American colonies, they’d hang you. They didn’t jump straight to capital punishment; counter-measures were tried first. Ben Franklin, who owned a firm that printed money for several colonies, intentionally misspelled Pennsylvania, believing that counterfeiters would correct the error in their forgeries. It’s almost the opposite of a fake street or “paper town,” a falsehood intentionally added to a map, usually, or another work, so you can trace who’s copying you when they copy the fake thing too.
Now you can’t talk about the history of money with fiat currency, though sadly it has nothing to do with tiny little Italian cars, which used to be cool and now look like toys for babies who are behind in developing their motor skills, don’t at me, you know I’m right. No, this fiat means decree. We’re talking about the gold standard, where currency or paper money has a value directly linked to gold, because we as a species seem to have decided that this pretty but almost pointlessly soft metal is the end-all and be-all of value. Countries can issue money at will and this can get you in a spot of bother, just ask folks in Zimbabwe trying to buy bread with trillion dollar bills. In 1821 the United Kingdom introduced the gold standard. In this monetary system, the standard unit of currency is typically kept at the value of a fixed quantity of gold, which increases confidence in international trade by preventing governments from excessively issuing currency. Eventually, other countries got on board, with the US adopting the gold standard in 1900. However, the system had its drawbacks, like making it damn near impossible to isolate and insulate your economy from a global depression. After that big one we all day, Great, you might call it, the world began to rethink the gold standard and by the 1970s, gold was no longer tied to currency.
My balliwick is usually the past, but what about the future? I am *not talking about NFT, crypto, or any other nonsense such-like, but you can check out ep 155 Hate to Burst Your Bubble for some parallels to where I think this is going, like Dutch tulips and Beanie Babies. Sorry, I shouldn’t dismiss crypto like they’re all scams. You should do your own research, and then dismiss them. Presenting instead, the quid! My British listeners (hey, Richard) are probably saying, um, we’ve had that for a while. No, this is quid in all caps, an acronym for Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination, and a backronym to the slang for British pound sterling, meaning the word came first and the acronym second, which is almost always the case when someone tries to tell you a word is actually an acronym. This quid is money for outer space! The proposed “space currency” was created as a viral marketing campaign launched by currency-exchange company Travelex and ad agency talkPR. QUIDs circular clear chemically-inert, smooth plastic discs with colored centers, symbolizing the eight planets of the Solar System inside, and denominations ranging from 1 to 10. It’s still a hypothetical, but since people with $500mil to burn can now tourist their asses to the ISS, who knows.
While we’re talking about ol Blighty, here’s one of those things I’ve always wondered but could never be asked to Google for some reason – do you ever do that? – and that’s old-timey British money, shillings, crowns, guineas and all that. Well, I looked it up, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it, but here you go! Pounds of the present are decimalized, meaning it’s basically metric, units of 10 and 100, like [100 pennies to the dollar]. Like the ruble and yen, the pound’s got some real age on it, dating back 1200 years old to the Saxon kings, made official by King Athelstan (yes, the one from Vikings and my second favorite TV philia). Yes, the name pound does come from the unit of measure, just as pound cake used to be made with a pound of each ingredient. Rather than dividing into 100 pennies, the original pound was equal to 240 sterling coins, hence the name “pounds (of) sterling.”
Between Athlestan and decimalisation in 1971, here’s what you might find between the cushions of the settee: There’s the pound, which breaks down into 20 shillings. Those shillings break down into 12 pennies, or 240 pennies per pound. FYI, the plural of “penny” is “pence” when referring to an amount of money, and “pennies” when referring to a number of coins, but don’t be surprised if . But that’s not the bottom end of the range. The penny was further divided into two halfpennies (480 ha’penny/lb), and a halfpenny could be split into two farthings (960 farthings/lb). Did I do that right? It sounds so crazy. There were a number of coins to make specific arrangements, like thruppence (3p), sixpence (a ‘tanner’), the shilling aka the bob, a florin for 2 shillings (a two-bob bit), a half-crown, which was 2 shillings and 6 pence and the crown, which was 5 shillings. What the actual hell, England? Like, I know if you grow up with it, it’s not so bad, but as someone with 20+ years in retail, this sounds like a bloody nightmare.
While Britain and neighboring Ireland didn’t get on the decimalisation train until 1971, it wasn’t the first time the idea came up. Parliament had considered decimalising the currency in 1824. In 1841,the Decimal Association was founded in support of both decimalisation and use of the metric system, which the French had adopted in the 1790s and possibly also created, but it depends on your source. The idea was out there, but it languished for a century, during which time the Crown with a capital C issued two shilling silver florin and the double florin. It was actually the adoption of decimalized money in South Africa in 1961 that finally kicked their arses into gear. The Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency was created and their report on the issue resulted in the final agreement to adopt decimalisation in 1966.
How do you move a nation of people from the one state of affairs to the other state of affairs?
Then chancellor, James Callaghan, announced his five-year plan for the changeover to be arranged. The new money went live on Monday February 15, 1971, D Day, D for Decimal, and it was a disaster…one moment please….okay,I’m being told it actually went okay. Well, in fact. The Guardian reported the next day, “The fear of confusion as travelers and shoppers met the new bronze coins for the first time proved unfounded.”
Just as with Y2K and what should have happened with covid, a lot of effort went into making sure the currency changeover would be a nonissue. It wasn’t simply a matter of hanging some posters and running PSAs on the radio. The first decimal coins were actually issued in 1968, to give people time to adapt and adjust. Shops began posting prices in both systems. Banks and shops trained their staff, with booklets provided by the government and tests you had to pass to prove you could handle new money. All the banks closed for the Thursday and Friday before to convert accounts over, plus the Stock Exchange closed and post office.
Not everyone had a jolly time with it, though. One woman closed her general store because of decimalisation. ‘I can’t be bothered with this new money,’ she said. ‘Six robberies in five years couldn’t close me, but this new money has. I know the old system and I’m not going to fiddle about with any new one.’ That’s a strange place to draw the line, but you do you, boo. One thing I like about about the whole decimalization story is the phrase “What is that in old money?” that I hadn’t heard since my dad and I used to watch Are You Being Served of a Saturday night and which the people around me –or person, my beleaguered husband– can expect to hear me cram into conversations for weeks to come.
And that’s… Shops in England and Wales aren’t legally obliged to accept Scottish paper money. According to the Bank of England, ‘legal tender’ only applies to Royal Mint coins and Bank of England notes, so those originating in Scotland are out. Interestingly, 1p and 2p coins are only ‘legal tender’ if the total amount is less than 20p, so unlike here in the States, a cashier could absolutely refuse your jar full of pennies.