Making money... and history

Money infographic from the History ChannelI don’t know about you, but I kind of like money.  And I really like history, even if it isn’t very profitable. Today we think of coins as being small amounts of money, but further back in history that wasn't true.  A single Spanish Pieces of eight coin (so loved by movie pirates) was the same as having 80 dollars.  When we talk about money, it can be about the concept of money- the ability buy or sell things. Or we can talk about the actual physical money.  Someday soon we might have a good long chat about Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations But for now lets talk about gods, empires, loose change, and of course cows.  

Money is a kind of an odd idea when you think about it: you give someone a few pieces of paper or some bits of metal and they give you stuff.  There are a lot of complex reasons and theories behind money. But at its core it’s an extension from the bartering system of trading one thing for another so everyone got something they needed.  This included livestock, shells, and cocoa beans.  People as a group decide what money is worth and what you can buy with it.  Money makes the trade a little more abstract but deals with the slight problem that cows are hard to carry.

By the time U.S. money comes along there is a lot of money and a lot of questions.  What kind of money should the brand new country use?  The leftovers from Britain?  It was available and people had been using it, but the system was… lets just say, complicated.  For example, did you know that 12 farthings equals one thruppence?  Yeah, me neither.  So when the United States opened the U.S. Mint in 1792, they had gone with Thomas Jefferson's suggestion to break everything down by 100 creating the pennies, quarters, and dollars that we know.  

San Francisco Mint after the earthquake, 1906.  Money and the Mint kept up with history: In 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake leveled the city, the U.S. Mint was one of the few buildings left standing and became the temporary bank for the region and the place where people could come for relief funds.  

In a more intentional nod to history, important people (well, mostly presidents) and places are stamped into our money.  The Lincoln Memorial, Crater Lake and the Statue of Libery are just a few that have appeared on U.S. money.  The United States is hardly the first country to use money to show off what is important to them.   The first person to be put on money was Alexander the Great, with the goddess Athena on the other side.  The coin wasn't made by Alexander, but by the ruler who came after him, Lysimachus.  He created the coin to show off his connection with Alexander.  One of the earliest coins in history is from Lydia (now Turkey) and is over 2500 years old.  After thousands of years without using coins and money, it is probably not random that the first place to make coins was a kingdom built on trading the all the gold in the area.

Athena's owl on a Greek coin, circa 450 BC. From the British MuseumThis coin from Ancient Greece is now in the British Museum and shows the owl of Athena was made and used around 2400 years ago.  People make history with money, but our money is history itself. I wonder what impressions our quarters will leave in the future?  



Want to learn more about money?  Ask a librarian!


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