The History Of Money Essay For Kids

Money, in and of itself, is nothing. It can be a shell, a metal coin, or a piece of paper with a historic image on it, but the value that people place on it has nothing to do with the physical value of the money. Money derives its value by being a medium of exchange, a unit of measurement and a storehouse for wealth. Money allows people to trade goods and services indirectly, understand the price of goods (prices written in dollar and cents correspond with an amount in your wallet) and gives us a way to save for larger purchases in the future.

Money is valuable merely because everyone knows everyone else will accept it as a form of payment - so let's take a look at where it has been, how it evolved and how it is used today. (To learn more about money itself, see What Is Money?)

A World Without Money

Money, in some form, has been part of human history for at least the last 3,000 years. Before that time, it is assumed that a system of bartering was likely used.

Bartering is a direct trade of goods and services - I'll give you a stone axe if you help me kill a mammoth - but such arrangements take time. You have to find someone who thinks an axe is a fair trade for having to face the 12-foot tusks on a beast that doesn't take kindly to being hunted. If that didn't work, you would have to alter the deal until someone agreed to the terms. One of the great achievements of money was increasing the speed at which business, whether mammoth slaying or monument building, could be done.

Slowly, a type of prehistoric currency involving easily traded goods like animal skins, salt and weapons developed over the centuries. These traded goods served as the medium of exchange even though the unit values were still negotiable. This system of barter and trade spread across the world, and it still survives today on some parts of the globe.

Asian Cutlery

Sometime around 1,100 B.C., the Chinese moved from using actual tools and weapons as a medium of exchange to using miniature replicas of the same tools cast in bronze. Nobody wants to reach into their pocket and impale their hand on a sharp arrow so, over time, these tiny daggers, spades and hoes were abandoned for the less prickly shape of a circle, which became some of the first coins. Although China was the first country to use recognizable coins, the first minted coins were created not too far away in Lydia (now western Turkey).

Coins and Currency

In 600 B.C., Lydia's King Alyattes minted the first official currency. The coins were made from electrum, a mixture of silver and gold that occurs naturally, and stamped with pictures that acted as denominations. In the streets of Sardis, circa 600 B.C., a clay jar might cost you two owls and a snake. Lydia's currency helped the country increase both its internal and external trade, making it one of the richest empires in Asia Minor. It is interesting that when someone says, "as rich as Croesus", they are referring to the last Lydian king who minted the first gold coin. Unfortunately, minting the first coins and developing a strong trading economy couldn't protect Lydia from the swords of the Persian army. (To read more about gold, see What Is Wrong With Gold?)

Not Just a Piece of Paper

Just when it looked like Lydia was taking the lead in currency developments, in 600 B.C., the Chinese moved from coins to paper money. By the time Marco Polo visited in 1,200 A.D., the emperor had a good handle on both money supply and various denominations. In the place of where the American bills say, "In God We Trust," the Chinese inscription warned, "All counterfeiters will be decapitated."

Europeans were still using coins all the way up to 1,600, helped along by acquisitions of precious metals from colonies to keep minting more and more cash. Eventually, the banks started using bank notes for depositors and borrowers to carry around instead of coins. These notes could be taken to the bank at any time and exchanged for their face values in silver or gold coins. This paper money could be used to buy goods and operated much like currency today, but it was issued by banks and private institutions, not the government, which is now responsible for issuing currency in most countries.

The first paper currency issued by European governments was actually issued by colonial governments in North America. Because shipments between Europe and the colonies took so long, the colonists often ran out of cash as operations expanded. Instead of going back to a barter system, the colonial governments used IOUs that traded as a currency. The first instance was in Canada, then a French colony. In 1685, soldiers were issued playing cards denominated and signed by the governor to use as cash instead of coins from France.

Money Travels

The shift to paper money in Europe increased the amount of international trade that could occur. Banks and the ruling classes started buying currencies from other nations and created the first currency market. The stability of a particular monarchy or government affected the value of the country's currency and the ability for that country to trade on an increasingly international market. The competition between countries often led to currency wars, where competing countries would try to affect the value of the competitor's currency by driving it up and making the enemy's goods too expensive, by driving it down and reducing the enemy's buying power (and ability to pay for a war), or by eliminating the currency completely.

Mobile Payments

The 21st century gave rise to two disruptive forms of currency: Mobile payments and virtual currency. A mobile payment is money rendered for a product or service through a portable electronic device such as a cell phone, smartphone or PDA. Mobile payment technology can also be used to send money to friends or family members. Increasingly, services like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are vying for retailers to accept their platforms for point-of-sale payments.

Virtual Currency

Bitcoin​, invented in 2009 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, became the gold standard--so to speak--for virtual currencies. Virtual currencies have no physical coinage. The appeal of virtual currency is it offers the promise of lower transaction fees than traditional online payment mechanisms and is operated by a decentralized authority, unlike government issued currencies.

The Bottom Line

Despite many advances, money still has a very real and permanent effect on how we do business today. (Follow the development of money in the United States in The History Of Money: Currency Wars.)

The History of Money

What is money? By definition, it's something of value. But over the last 10,000 years, the material form that money has taken has changed considerably—from cattle and cowrie shells to today's electronic currency. Here, get an overview of the history of money.

Editor's Note: The dates below mark the approximate start of use.

In the Beginning: Barter

Barter is the exchange of resources or services for mutual advantage, and the practice likely dates back tens of thousands of years, perhaps even to the dawn of modern humans. Some would even argue that it's not purely a human activity; plants and animals have been bartering—in symbiotic relationships—for millions of years. In any case, barter among humans certainly pre-dates the use of money. Today individuals, organizations, and governments still use, and often prefer, barter as a form of exchange of goods and services.

9000 - 6000 B.C.: Cattle

Cattle, which throughout history and across the globe have included not only cows but also sheep, camels, and other livestock, are the first and oldest form of money. With the advent of agriculture also came the use of grain and other vegetable or plant products as a standard form of barter in many cultures.

1200 B.C.: Cowrie Shells

The first use of cowries, the shells of a mollusc that was widely available in the shallow waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was in China. Historically, many societies have used cowries as money, and even as recently as the middle of this century, cowries have been used in some parts of Africa. The cowrie is the most widely and longest used currency in history.

1000 B.C.: First Metal Money and Coins

Bronze and Copper cowrie imitations were manufactured by China at the end of the Stone Age and could be considered some of the earliest forms of metal coins. Metal tool money, such as knife and spade monies, was also first used in China. These early metal monies developed into primitive versions of round coins. Chinese coins were made out of base metals, often containing holes so they could be put together like a chain.

500 B.C.: Modern Coinage

Outside of China, the first coins developed out of lumps of silver. They soon took the familar round form of today, and were stamped with various gods and emperors to mark their authenticity. These early coins first appeared in Lydia, which is part of present-day Turkey, but the techniques were quickly copied and further refined by the Greek, Persian, Macedonian, and later the Roman empires. Unlike Chinese coins which depended on base metals, these new coins were made from precious metals such as silver, bronze, and gold, which had more inherent value.

118 B.C.: Leather Money

Leather money was used in China in the form of one-foot-square pieces of white deerskin with colorful borders. This could be considered the first documented type of banknote.

A.D. 800 - 900: The Nose

The phrase "To pay through the nose" comes from Danes in Ireland, who slit the noses of those who were remiss in paying the Danish poll tax.

806: Paper Currency

The first known paper banknotes appeared in China. In all, China experienced over 500 years of early paper money, spanning from the ninth through the fifteenth century. Over this period, paper notes grew in production to the point that their value rapidly depreciated and inflation soared. Then beginning in 1455, the use of paper money in China disappeared for several hundred years. This was still many years before paper currency would reappear in Europe, and three centuries before it was considered common.

1500: Potlach

"Potlach" comes from a Chinook Indian custom that existed in many North American Indian cultures. It is a ceremony where not only were gifts exchanged, but dances, feasts, and other public rituals were performed. In some instances potlach was a form of initiation into secret tribal societies. Because the exchange of gifts was so important in establishing a leader's social rank, potlach often spiralled out of control as the gifts became progressively more lavish and tribes put on larger and grander feasts and celebrations in an attempt to out-do each other.

1535: Wampum

The earliest known use of wampum, which are strings of beads made from clam shells, was by North American Indians in 1535. Most likely, this monetary medium existed well before this date. The Indian word "wampum" means white, which was the color of the beads.

1816: The Gold Standard

Gold was officially made the standard of value in England in 1816. At this time, guidelines were made to allow for a non-inflationary production of standard banknotes which represented a certain amount of gold. Banknotes had been used in England and Europe for several hundred years before this time, but their worth had never been tied directly to gold. In the United States, the Gold Standard Act was officialy enacted in 1900, which helped lead to the establishment of a central bank.

1930: End of the Gold Standard

The massive Depression of the 1930s, felt worldwide, marked the beginning of the end of the gold standard. In the United States, the gold standard was revised and the price of gold was devalued. This was the first step in ending the relationship altogether. The British and international gold standards soon ended as well, and the complexities of international monetary regulation began.

The Present:

Today, currency continues to change and develop, as evidenced by the new $100 U.S. Ben Franklin bill.

The Future: Electronic Money

In our digital age, economic transactions regularly take place electronically, without the exchange of any physical currency. Digital cash in the form of bits and bytes will most likely continue to be the currency of the future.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Secrets of Making Money.

Today we value gold Kruggerands and paper Franklins, but cattle and cowrie shells have also served as currency. EnlargePhoto credit: © Steve Sucsy (coin), Skip O'Donnell (bills), narvikk (cow), Steve Goodwin (shells)/iStock

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