Forms of Money
Feathers, bones, seashells, cloth, and important commodities, such as this brick of tea, are just some of the variety of objects that have been used to represent value and to make general or ceremonial payments. Some objects, like seashells, have been used as money both in their original form and as raw material to make monetary objects, such as Native American wampum.
Brick of Tea, Siberia, 18th–19th Century
Clam Shell Wampum, United States
Stone Money from the Island of Yap
This stone ring is money from the Pacific island of Yap. It weighs 168.5 pounds and is not intended to circulate like a coin. Instead its use has been reserved for significant or ceremonial payments, such as dowries. The stone ring has also represented accumulated wealth and conveyed social status. Some stone rings are so large and heavy that they cannot be moved, but changes in ownership of the rings are acknowledged by the community on Yap.
Rai Stone Ring, Island of Yap (Micronesia), 20th Century
Small seashells have many characteristics that make them ideal monetary objects. They are durable, portable, and difficult to imitate. One species of cowrie shell is known as the money shell because it was used so widely for this purpose. Shells circulated as a medium of exchange in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and North America. Seashells are no longer an official form of money, but they remain an alternative to notes and coins during periods of scarcity. This clam shell briefly functioned as money in Pismo Beach, California, during the Great Depression.
29 Strung Cowrie Shells
1 Dollar Clam Shell, United States, 1933
Many different metals have been used as money, including copper, iron, tin, gold, and silver. Metal money can be melted down and used for other purposes, which makes it an appealing form of payment. Metallic money ranges from simple shapes to highly refined designs.
Silver “Tiger Tongue” Bar, Laos, 19th Century
Manilla, West Africa, 19th Century
“Tin Hat” Coin, Malay Peninsula, 1864
This iron money, called a Kissi penny, takes its name from the Kissi people of modern-day Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is believed that the shape was intended to display the quality of the iron. The shape shows that the iron can be twisted, hammered, sharpened into a blade, and fashioned into points. Kissi pennies were used for transactions in West Africa from the 19th to the mid-20th century and could be exchanged for coins and notes circulating in the region.
The Origins of Coins
The earliest coins originated independently in three different parts of the world. Around the same time in the 7th century BCE, coins were first made in Lydia (modern Turkey) and in China. The first Indian coins were made in the 5th century BCE. The earliest coins from Lydia and India were made from small, round pieces of metal whereas the first Chinese coins were in the shape of farming tools, such as this bronze spade.
1/3 Stater Coin, Lydia, 7th–6th Century BCE
Hollow-Handle Spade, China, 5th–4th Century BCE
Punch-Marked Coin, Son River Region (India), 4th Century BCE
The Origins of Paper Money
Paper money as it is known today was first developed in China in the 11th century CE. This Chinese note was issued by the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Its value corresponded to 1,000 bronze coins, which are depicted strung together in the center of the note.
Great Ming Circulating Treasure Note, China, 14th Century CE