A curious means of exchange
5th Apr 2016
At MBNA we’re all about credit cards and making transactions easier but, in the centuries before the convenience of plastic, people used some very odd things to make payments.
Would you have the audacity to pay someone in fish? Maybe not… but it happened.
Behind every weird and wonderful form of currency in the history of trade, there was a brave individual who first used it. A person that one day decided ‘You know what? I’m going to pay for this in fish’. And, somewhat surprisingly, someone accepted.
Of course, most of these curious means of exchange never took off, but some weren’t just accepted - their usage spread wide enough to make them a viable currency.
When it comes to alternatives to money, our forebears weren’t averse to paying with the big, the furry and the downright smelly. So, if you’re convinced you could never convert from cash, take a look at some of the peculiar payment forms we’ve used in the past – even when cash was an option.
600 to 200 BC: knives and spades1
Do you take cutlery or coins?
If someone draws out a knife instead of a wallet you might think there’s serious trouble brewing but in ancient China, during the time of the Zhou dynasty, knives and spades became an early form of currency. Later, in the 8th century2, the Chinese adopted a monetary system that replicated this trade with tiny knives and spades.
Your geographic region defined whether you used knife money or spade money.
27 BC: salt3
Overworked and underpaid?
A Roman soldier’s wage partly consisted of salt rations4 and was such a precious commodity that salt became synonymous with cash. The word salary actually comes from the Latin word for salt, ‘salarium’.
As a guide to its value, a barber in ancient Rome would have to shave thirteen customers to afford 1 dry litre of salt5… not that the Romans had chips to sprinkle it on.
500 AD: rai stones6
If you think carrying cash and coins is inconvenient, then try hauling a rai stone around.
Weighing in at over 8 tonnes and measuring 12 feet in diameter, rai stones were found in the Solomon Islands (Yap to be specific), and are the largest known currency to have existed in ancient times. These enormous discs were carved from solid limestone, transported (precariously) by canoe from a neighbouring island. The risks undertaken to produce and move each stone actually increased their value. Unlike the portable currencies of today, rai stones would stay put due to their sheer size and weight and would instead acquire a new owner.7
1200 AD: cowrie shells8
Grumbling about a few pennies in your purse? It’s better than trading in shells.
In 1243, the smallest fraction of British money was the farthing. In Nigeria however, the smallest unit of currency was 5 cowrie shells. Back then, 1 farthing was worth between 25 and 32 cowries.9
1700 AD (1774): sperm whale teeth10
With this whale’s tooth, I thee wed.
For the inhabitants of Fiji, receiving the tooth of a sperm whale would be a great honour. Whale teeth were the main symbol of wealth, contributing to a culture of gift exchange rather than payment. They had sacred and ceremonial value, which made their value incomparable with other goods. However, one whale tooth could be exchanged for a large canoe, and it had the same symbolic value as an engagement ring today.
During his voyage through the islands of Fiji and Tonga, Captain James Cook actually set out the customs of whale tooth exchange in 1774.
1800 AD (1837): beaver pelts
Would you prefer to pay in beaver or squirrel?
The fur trade on the American frontier saw native tribes trade their beaver and deer pelts with the English for metal tools. One good quality buck skin was worth between $1 and $2, hence the slang term ‘buck’ for a dollar. A beaver pelt worth $2 back in 1837, works out at about $50 today.11
Squirrel pelts were also a popular means of exchange between Russians in the Middle Ages. In fact, the Russian people weren’t so severely impacted by the Black Death, because they routinely skinned most of their flea-bearing rodents.12
2004 AD: mackerel13
What’s that smell? Oh, it’s just this wad of fish I’m going to pay you with.
Cigarettes used to be the currency of choice in America’s prisons but, after they were banned from prison commissaries, inmates had to find an alternative.
While it might not seem a natural fit, mackerel became the accepted currency. And because not many people fancy eating such pungent merchandise, it made a good substitute for the dollar.
2007 AD: pig tusks14
Tired of carrying your pig tusks around… why not pay them into a bank?
If you’re out of cash but have a few pig tusks lying around, get yourself down to the Tari Bunia Bank on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island. If you can get your hands on a curly pig tusk – the more loops the better – you can pay a deposit into the bank. The bank is said to be guarded by spirits and snakes, which might be the reason it’s never been robbed.
2009 AD: parmesan
Looking for a quick loan? Try cash for cheese.
If anyone was going to run a bank of cheese, it would be the Italians. Bank Credito Emiliano supports local businesses by providing loans to parmesan producers. In 2009, a 36 kilogram wheel of parmesan cheese was worth 300 euros15. Parmesan has kept its precious commodity status throughout the ages. In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, diarist Samuel Pepys famously buried his expensive stash of parmesan to protect it16. Now that’s a novel form of buried treasure.
2011 AD: Star Wars commemorative coins17
Don’t have any money? Use the force.
Commemorative Star Wars coins, released in 2011, became legal tender on the island of Niue, a small Polynesian island about 1,500 miles off the coast of New Zealand.
Random fact: ‘Niue’ translates to, ‘behold the coconut’.
The island’s shops were said to accept the Star Wars currency for all kinds of items including food and clothing.
However, the coins had a face value of between 1 and 2 New Zealand dollars18, so the material value of the metal was greater than its purchasing power.
I have the money, promise… you just can’t see it.
Referred to as digital currencies or cryptocurrencies19, the arrival of Bitcoin and friends marked the start of a new era of virtual money. Bitcoin is a digital asset which means it’s entirely electronic, existing only in the form of encrypted code. While it’s not yet a mainstream payment method, since their release in 200920, Bitcoins have been exchanged for goats21, honey22 and even legal representation.23
Inspired to try new ways of paying?
We don’t fancy your chances if you pop to the shops and try to pay with a handful of fish, but with an MBNA credit card you can give the latest payment technology a whirl, including all the convenience of contactless.
3 ‘Stretching back to Roman times’: mentalfloss.com/uk/money/30081/6-objects-that-have-been-used-as-currency. Duration of the Roman Empire: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_Roman_Empire.
5 Price of salt in Denarii per modius, modius conversion to litres, and barber’s wage in Denarii per customer taken from: ancientcoinsforeducation.org/content/view/79/98/
10 The Encyclopaedia of Money, Second Edition, 2009, Larry Allen.
11 Fur pelt prices in 1837, and calculated inflation to 2009 taken from: furfortfunfacts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/how-much-was-beaver-pelt-worth.html, inflation to 2016 calculated using: dollartimes.com