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Money Through the Ages: A Historic Retrospective

Aug 19, 2008
Precious metals, conch shells and bartering have all been utilized by civilizations through the ages in the exchange of services or goods. This early form of money, or proto-money, was used before the invention of real currency. In ancient times, a bag of rice might have been exchanged by someone for a bag of beans. The challenge of this bartering system is that it can often be a challenge for two people to determine the actual value of an item, or agree on terms if the items being exchanged are not of use to someone.

To rectify this challenge, countries began establishing systems of commodity money. At first these commodities came in the form of cattle, tobacco, and even salt. But imagine the challenge faced by those who had to carry bags of salt or owned a commodity such as seeds or produce which are perishable. Instead, coins made of metal became a favored choice of proto-money. Gold was also a standard choice in both the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations. Coins bearing the mark of an authority that bear it can be traced back to ancient Lydia, or Turkey, where metal objects were first introduced as money. Soon, other countries began minting their own coins set with specific values. The issue of the first paper money can be traced to China around 960 A.D.

The use of commodity money eventually evolved into the use of representative money. This new system guaranteed the worth of paper or coins, backed up by banks who issued a receipt to depositors which indicated the amount it could be redeemed for in gold or silver money. Eventually, the receipts themselves were used to trade as money since they were "as good as gold." An example of this is the British Pound, which once upon a time could be redeemed for a pound of sterling silver. This gold standard was the basis for the use of representative money for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1913, the Federal Reserve System was established as the America's central bank created to regulate the flow of money and credit. A year later, the Federal Reserve Notes, comprising more than 99 percent of today's U.S. paper money, were issued. These represented direct obligations of the Federal Reserve System and replaced National Bank Notes as the preferred form of paper money.

Today, representative money has been replaced by fiat money. Latin for "let it be done," fiat refers to the money that has been given value by a government fiat or decree. The U.S. switched to a fiat money system in the early 1970s. As many currencies in developed counties were tied to the U.S. dollar, this change created a fiat system for most of the western world's currencies.

In an effort to improve security and keep a step ahead of counterfeiters, a new series of National Bank Notes were introduced in the 1990s. These notes have an embedded security strip and include microprinting. Most recently, the notes have again undergone a face lift with the enlargement of the appearance of denominations, simplified borders, and off-center portraits.

With the advent of online banking, electronic payments, debit and credit cards, much speculation has been made regarding the future of a "cashless society" And while these systems offers convenience and efficiency, many of today's consumers like to balance the security of online banking practices with the use of a little cold, hard cash.

Did You Know?
At any time, $200 million in notes may be in production.
Currency is designed, engraved and printed 24 hours a day.
Only the front of a dollar bill is valuable.
By the mid-1800s, nearly one-third of all circulating currency was counterfeit.
The United States Secret Service was established to control counterfeiting.
In 1781, the Continental Congress chartered the nation's first "real" bank in Philadelphia.
About the Author
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