Money makes the world go round, and has done for thousands of years. Where cowrie shells were once used as payment, nowadays the need for real, hard cash might be becoming obsolete. Here’s the run-down on the history of currency and how it’s changed over time.
1

Money through the ages

Many moons ago money as such did not exist. People used a barter system, and exchanged goods with others to acquire the things they needed. Some people still do so. This photograph by Tomke Lask shows a modern barter exchange in Bolivia: “The little brown bowl, made of a cucurbitacea, is the measure for the barter. One bowl of fruits or vegetables is change [sic] to one bowl of potatoes. There is a whole street on the market of Colomi reserved for barter."

2

Money through the ages

From 1200-800 BC the Chinese began using cowrie shells as currency. The shells were used as gifts such as offerings for bridal and burial ceremonies. Like money, the more cowries you had, the more powerful you became. Eventually the use of cowries started spreading to Africa and even North America. Around 1000 BC the Chinese started making mock cowrie shells with metal, like coins with a hole in the middle. Photo by prilfish.

3

Money through the ages

Around 500 BC in Lydia the first silver coins appeared on the scene. Since silver was scarce, the coins were intrinsically worth something, and they were imprinted with important gods and emperors to define their value. It wasn’t long before the Greek, Persian, Macedonian and Roman empires started doing their own coin thing. This photograph by Bahrfeldt shows silver coins minted for the Greek king Ptolemy II, who ruled Egypt during the 3rd Century BC.

4

Money through the ages

A number of societies, including the Lydians, introduced gold coins around the same time as silver. Since gold was less common than silver, the gold coins were worth more. This photograph by Ancient Art shows a Roman coin depicting Hadrian (117-138 CE), plus a personification of the Nile.

5

Money through the ages

The first kind of "paper money" was invented in China in 118 BC. Initially this money was actually made of leather: foot square pieces of white deerskin painted bright colors. Later, the leather was replaced with paper. Leather and paper money was lighter and easier to carry than metal coins, and meant materials such as copper and iron could be saved for more important uses. The photograph on the left shows a money plate from Shanghai (1271 AD – 1368 AD) used for printing designs onto paper. The image on the right shows paper money from the same time period. Both photographs are by bronnenbergdean.

6

Money through the ages

The Knights Templar, England’s most famous Christian military order, were the first group of people to create credit debt. They allowed pilgrims to deposit their money at a chapter house, get an encoded note, and then redeem the note for cash elsewhere. Naturally this came with a huge fee, and the Templars became so rich they were able to offer loans, mortgages and cheques on deposit accounts, and lend kings the money to finance military campaigns. In other words, you can blame the Templars for all the world's credit and debt woes! This photo by Francisco Diez shows Temple Church, the Templars’ English headquarters.

7

Money through the ages

Things started getting complicated with the introduction of representative money, and later fiat currencies. Representative money, like the example shown in this photograph by Phil Barnhart, was used as a token with no intrinsic worth to represent a certain amount of something valuable. A bit like an IOU which you could in theory exchange for gold or silver at the bank. After World War II fiat currency came into use: money that had value because the government said it had value, not because it was actually worth anything. Still following?

8

Money through the ages

Since the 17th Century most coins in countries such as England were milled, making them much harder to counterfeit. Despite this, by the mid 1800's almost one-third of all circulating currency was counterfeit. Paper bills these days therefore have a load of security measures, such as those shown in this image of an American $20 bill by Jack of Spades.#1 and #2: New micro-printing. #3: A watermark portrait of Andrew Jackson.#4: The “20” is printed metallically to change color in different lightings. #5: A Mylar security thread running vertically glows green under UV light and has additional micro-printing. #6: An engraving process is used to print extremely fine lines. #7: The back of the bill is printed with two different kinds of ink which are not visible to the naked eye and cannot be reproduced by scanners. #8: The 20’s on the back form a constellation which also cannot be reproduced by scanners or printers.

9

Money through the ages

So what's next? Visa Europe chief exec Peter Ayliffe said in 2007 that cash would no longer be in use by 2012. While this now seems unlikely, it is already possible to send money to people via twitter, and at places like the VIP Baja Beach Club in Barcelona patrons are using microchips in their arms to pay for drinks. Why not? The idea of money is becoming more and more virtual, after all. Photo by Pungkas Nataatmaja of VegasProStudios.

10

Money through the ages

Maybe the future of money is a combination of high and low tech. We are starting to come full circle, with people trying to cut back on their possessions by returning to bartering and trade on a small-scale, community level. At Swap.com users sign in to trade DVDs, books, CDs and video games that have run their course. GiftFlow works the same way, and NeighborGoods covers everything from lawnmowers to bicycles, but on a loan-basis only. No money necessary! Photo by Emily Iafrate.

View 5 comments