Curator's corner
Change is good! A history of money

The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years and includes a host of different objects – some you would expect and others that may surprise you. Think of this blog post as a dossier of dosh, a compilation of cash, a myriad of moolah…

Accountancy and beer

We tend to think of money in terms of numbers today, but it’s actually the written word that helps us understand its history. When writing was first invented, did the ancients write the stories of their peoples or great literature? No – it was used primarily for bureaucracy! This clay tablet from Mesopotamia outlines a purchase over 2,500 years ago by a person called Tupsikka who bought land with over 22,000 litres of barley, 16 pounds of wool and 16 quarts of oil.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers. The symbol for beer is included three times – an upright jar with a pointed base. Mesopotamia, 3100–3000 BC.

This clay tablet is even older – it has some of the earliest writing from anywhere in the world. It was made around 3100–3000 BC in Mesopotamia. Rather pleasingly, the text records beer given to workers as part of their daily rations.

Mint condition

Electrum coin. Lydia, 7th century BC.

Electrum coin. Lydia, 7th century BC.

Getting paid in beer might seem like a good idea, but isn’t always practical. To help with transactions, some Mediterranean kingdoms started issuing pieces of metal that were the same weight. The example above is one of the earliest coins in the world, minted in the Kingdom of Lydia (in modern day Turkey) over 2,500 years ago. Made of electrum, a naturally occurring amalgam of gold and silver, these irregular shaped coins were issued to a strict weight standard, and stamped with symbols which acted as a guarantee of weight and purity.

Bronze money in the form of a spade. China, 5th century BC.

Bronze money in the form of a spade. China, 5th century BC.

At a similar time, coins began to appear in China for the first time. These coins take the shape of agricultural implements, in this example a spade. They bear inscriptions that refer to a geographical area, group or weight.

Heads and tales

Before the invention of printing, the coin was the great tool of mass communication. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, his betrayer Brutus issued his own coins to speak directly to the people of Rome. These coins featured his portrait on one side, with two daggers accompanied by a Pileus hat (a piece of headgear associated with liberation) on the other. Below the iconography ran the now infamous words EID MAR: The Ides of March. The coin celebrates the assassination of Julius Caesar and what the conspirators saw as the liberation of the Roman people from tyranny.

This coin celebrates the Roman emperor Claudius’ triumph over Britain. The back of the coin shows Claudius on a horse, on top of a triumphal arch. Romans built these in honour of a victorious general. The letters on the arch read DE BRITANN – the Latin for ‘[a triumph] over the Britons’.

Worth the paper it’s written on?

A note known as the Great Ming Circulating Treasure, China, 1375, with the detail of the string of coins, showing what the note was worth.

A note known as the Great Ming Circulating Treasure, China, 1375, with the detail of the string of coins, showing what the note was worth.

Coins are all very well, but the invention of paper money in China over 1,000 years ago is one of the true revolutionary inventions of human history. This note is worth 1,000 wen coins (coins that were confusingly called ‘cash’ by Europeans). They are shown on the note by a picture of a string of 1,000 bronze coins (in 10 stacks of 100 coins each). 1,000 coins would have been 1.5 metres long and would have weighed about 3kg(!), so having a paper note was much more convenient. However, the note also contains a strong warning to any would-be counterfeiters that their crime would be punishable by execution!

50 pfennig Notgeld. Issued in Müritz, Germany, 1922.

50 pfennig Notgeld. Issued in Müritz, Germany, 1922.

One of the problems with physical money through the ages has been that sometimes there’s too much of it, and sometimes not enough. During the First World War a shortage of coins encouraged towns and regions in several European countries to issue local notes worth small sums. In Germany this Notgeld (‘emergency money’) became popular with collectors who prized the notes for the great variety of designs, and by the 1920s these tiny notes were produced in vast numbers with collecting, rather than spending, in mind. Designs on the notes ranged from wartime propaganda to local views or scenes from folklore. This particular example depicts the German seaside resort of Muritz on the Baltic sea.

This Hungarian 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengő note is the largest denomination ever issued on a banknote. It was printed in January 1946 during a period of hyperinflation which saw denominations doubling every 15 hours. Count the zeroes!

Heavy metal and rolling stones

Copper plate money. Sweden, 1658.

Copper plate money. Sweden, 1658.

Paper money and coins are convenient as they are portable, but this isn’t always the case with money. Weighing in at 14kg and over 65cm long, this Swedish plate money from the 17th century is actually a coin! The country’s vast copper resources swelled the royal coffers and, fearful of a dip in international copper prices, Sweden aimed to absorb much of its own output in the creation of a copper currency, but its abundance meant it wasn’t very valuable except in large quantities (this example was worth about 2 kegs (tunna) of rye). This practice led one Danish visitor to comment, ‘Many people carry their money in a rope on their backs, others place them on their head and, in cases of large sums, they transport them on a wagon.’ This isn’t exactly tap and go…

Stone money. Yap, Micronesia, c. 1900–1940.

Stone money. Yap, Micronesia, c. 1900–1940.

Continuing our theme of big money this stone ring (rai) from the Pacific island of Yap is nearly half a metre in diameter which sounds big, but is small compared to some examples which could be up to 3 metres wide! The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes was fascinated with the money, which when in place was rarely moved but could still be spent. He described the Yap islanders as ‘a people whose ideas on currency are probably more truly philosophical than those of any country.’

Buried treasure

Before modern banks, what could you do with your money to keep it safe? For millennia people hid money or buried it in the ground. This generally worked as gold in particular kept its value, whether or not the currency itself did. When it was found in 1911, this jug was uncovered with two bronze coins in its neck, strategically placed to hide the true value of its contents, 160 Roman gold coins!

Buddhist reliquary vase. Wardak, Afghanistan, AD 178.

Although hoards were often buried with the intention of retrieving them at a later date, sometimes people buried coins for other reasons. While money’s primary function is economic, over the centuries it has become entwined with ideas of spirituality and devotion. This vase from Afghanistan contained bronze coins and was buried as an offering to the Buddha for the benefit of a man called Vagramarega and his family.

Plastic fantastic!

Bank of Americard Credit Card. USA, 1966.

Bank of Americard credit card. USA, 1966.

Around 50 years ago, another major change in the history of money took place. The first credit cards that we would recognise today were issued by Bank of America in 1958. To promote this new way to pay, the bank mailed a plastic card unsolicited to every customer in the Californian city of Fresno, California. The period between 1966 and 1970 became known as the great credit card race when 100 million cards were mailed to potential users. In Chicago in 1967 some people claimed to have received up to 15 separate cards!

The first experiments with electronic cash payments took place in the 1990s. Mondex electronic cash system was trialled in the British town of Swindon in 1995 and was promoted as an alternative to coins and banknotes. Perhaps Mondex was ahead of its time as the trials ended without a nationwide launch of the service, but the rise of cashless payments in the UK means that over half of consumer payments today are done without using coins or banknotes. People sometimes comment on ‘the cashless society’ but we’re not there quite yet. Whatever happens, the Museum will continue to collect and display objects that tell this constantly evolving and often fascinating story.

Trace the history of money from prehistory to the present day in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery.

Supported by Citi.