One of the foundations of modern society is our currency, a system in which financial means drive one’s ability to acquire assets—both the things we want and the things we need. You probably realize there’s a lot behind the presence of those crumpled bills in your pocket, but as National Geographic’s new series Origins explains (Mondays, 9/8 CST), there’s quite a bit you may not know about how they got there. Check out these 10 facts about money’s rich history.
1. COWRIE SHELLS WERE ONCE USED AS CURRENCY.
Circa 9000 to 6000 BCE, goods and services were purchased using livestock to facilitate transactions. By 1200 BCE, China and other parts of the world had moved on to cowrie, the durable shell of a mollusk, to represent value. (In addition to their durability, cowrie shells tend not to vary much in size, which makes it relatively easy to weigh them in order to determine the total value of a payment.) The cowrie proved so popular that it remained a tool for transactions in some parts of Africa as recently as the mid-20th century.
2. THE CHINESE LINKED COINS TOGETHER.
Chunks of precious metals provided the basis for early coin currency; coins first emerged around 650 BCE in Greece. The Chinese used bronze and copper as a way to imitate cowrie shells, and around the 2nd century BCE, the country produced bean-shaped coins with holes in them so people could carry their money on a chain for safe-keeping.
3. THE ORIGINS OF “PAYING THROUGH THE NOSE” ARE NOT AS DARK AS YOU MIGHT THINK.
The expression “paying through the nose” implies that a purchaser is being price-gouged. A common explanation for the phrase’s origin is gruesome, and, it would seem, apocryphal: Some claim that it stems from a Viking practice of splitting the noses of anyone who couldn’t pay their taxes. While the phrase’s true origins remain murky, other, less-violent explanations have been put forth which may be more likely. One story is that it comes from a tax imposed on the Irish in the 9th century CE referred to as a “nose tax”—where “nose” was used the way we mean “head” in “headcount.” Another explanation suggests that the phrase derives from the practice of “paying out” chain cable from the “nose” of a ship. And yet another version posits that the phrase traces its roots to the image of someone who’s been fooled in such a way that they’re led around like an animal by a rope threaded through holes pierced in its nose.
4. PAPER MONEY SERVED A REAL PURPOSE.
The Chinese were the first to develop paper money during the Song and Yuan dynasties. (Prior to that—as early as the Tan Dynasty—individuals would exchange paper receipts for services rendered.) Paper currency finally began to be used in the 1600s in Europe, although some people were wary of the flimsy material’s ability to hold its value. But for early versions of treasuries, paper money held considerable appeal: Banks could print more convenient paper currency to represent precious metal holdings.
5. THE FIRST CREDIT CARD CAME OUT OF A MISTAKE.
Although the concept for a card that could carry a debt balance likely originated in the 1940s with a Brooklyn bank, the first widely-used card, according to the official story anyway, was the brainchild of a forgetful businessman. In 1949, the executive was at a dinner in New York City when he realized he had forgotten his wallet. Thinking there should be an alternative to cash, the very first credit card was born. Originally made out of cardboard, banks made the switch to plastic in the 1960s.
6. COUNTERFEITING WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE NEW WORLD.
When Europeans arrived in North America in the early 1600s, particularly shady traders took to dyeing plain white shells blue-black so they’d resemble more valuable versions of wampumpeag or wampum, the shells the Algonquin tribe used as currency. Once coins were introduced, colonial governments made laws forbidding their counterfeiting; one 1645 Virginia law even noted that anyone in violation would face “capitall punishment.” The threat of such harsh penalties did little to dissuade people from making their own money; one historian calls a 150-year period starting in the early 18th century a “golden age” of counterfeiting, which coincided with an incredibly vulnerable period in American history as the new nation tried to unify and establish itself.
7. THERE USED TO BE $100,000 BILLS.
Before mass checking systems and credit cards came into prominence, large purchases could be transacted between banks using $100,000 denominations. In the 1930s, 12 Federal Reserve banks used the bills for their private bill-settling.
8. MOST U.S. PAPER MONEY CONSISTS OF $100 BILLS.
You may or may not carry a surplus of cash on you, but if you do, it may not represent the most popular denomination. According to a 2013 Federal Reserve analysis, 77 percent of the $1.2 trillion in paper money in circulation worldwide consists of $100 bills. Two-thirds of the hundreds are held outside the U.S.
9. THERE’S A BITCOIN ATM.
Bitcoins, the digital currency first proposed by anonymous and amateur financiers in 2008, met a milestone in 2013 when a bitcoin ATM opened in Vancouver. Users can scan their hand and move funds to or from their virtual accounts.
10. YOUR SMART PHONE WILL PROBABLY BECOME YOUR BANK BEFORE LONG.
In Kenya, up to 90 percent of adults use simple cell phones to transmit funds for goods and services via text message—and most don’t have a bank account. Experts believe that this might provide a template for a worldwide financial future where the overhead of banking is reduced or eliminated, making electronic distribution of currency available even in the most impoverished of places.