When Money Doesn’t Look Like Money

A roundup of unusual types of currency, many of which don’t properly fit into a world of dollars and cents. Would you like your change in tea bricks or giant stones?

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Cryptocurrency isn’t exactly at the peak of its powers at the moment, admittedly, for lots of good reasons. There has been at least one unmitigated financial disaster involving a crypto exchange in recent months, and anyone who held onto their NFTs after, say, June, did not find that to be a wise decision. Tedium isn’t really a crypto publication, but it does like writing about unusual things, and on the currency front, there’s a lot that’s unusual about currency that doesn’t come in the form of coins, dollar bills, or even cryptocurrency. Today’s Tedium talks about types of currency that aren’t really designed for your wallet. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is of a form of stone currency called a “Rai,” associated with the Micronesian island of Yap. More on that in a second.

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1991

The year that Aaron Giles, a software developer known for his work in emulation, came up with an unusual concept for one of the applications he developed, the MacOS app JPEGView. Rather than ask for money, Giles asked users to mail him a postcard, making it the first example of “postcardware.” The software, which exposed latent JPEG support in the QuickTime codec, became widely popular, which meant that Giles received a lot of postcards from all over the world. The archive of postcards, which total more than 6,000, is accessible online today. (One could argue, to be fair, that this is not currency, because it’s not like Giles could resell the postcards.)

Card Money

An example of “card money,” a form of currency on playing cards, used in French territories starting in the 17th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

That time the French colonies decided it would be a good idea to make currency out of playing cards

Jacques de Meulles was a desperate civil servant who needed a quick solution to a complicated problem.

See, de Meulles was the intendant for New France—a large area spanning from Louisiana to Newfoundland, much of which was famously sold in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He was essentially a technocrat managing an area that was largely still coming into its own as a center of economic activity. The territory’s challenging, import-heavy economic model basically left the massive region utterly dependent on ships coming in from France.

And that meant that when the massive French territory ran out of money, largely in coin form, it was stuck attempting to find reasonable alternatives. As the 1984 book Money and Exchange in Canada to 1900, by numismatic researcher A.B. McCullough, put it:

The preoccupation of the colonists with attracting coins may be difficult for the modern reader to appreciate. Today, coins are used almost exclusively for small transactions and for making change. This was an important function in earlier periods and shortages of small coins led to inconvenience in small day-to-day transactions, but the importance of coins in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries went far beyond small change. Coins were the only legal tender, the only form of payment which could not legally be refused. They were the basic and most reliable form of money. Paper money was a recent innovation, subject to forgery by individuals, to overissue with resulting depreciation, and to repudiation by the issuing agency. The precious metals from which coins were produced had an intrinsic and remarkably stable value which made the coin a secure store for surplus wealth. Coins were also given importance by the leading economic theory of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, mercantilism. Mercantilism identified precious metals, or coined money, with wealth. Because there was a finite amount of precious metals, wealth was acquired, not created. Nations became wealthy by acquiring coin from other nations. The colonists, in seeking to attract coins to their jurisdiction, were simply copying the policies of the home governments.

As implied by that passage, it was not exactly an easy thing to circulate currency in the 17th century, no matter where you were, but there wasn’t really a good alternative, especially for a territory under the management of a far-away royal empire.

That royal empire attempted to solve the problem by minting coins specifically for New France, but even that didn’t go far enough. As McCullough recalled, transporting coins was expensive, but replacing coins with dollars had proven a counterfeiting risk, with the French West Indies Company unsuccessfully pushing for a ban on them. But because coins were so challenging to transport the French government had decided at some point to send bills of exchange to the government, rather than actual coinage. Good for France, but bad for New France, which had to figure out a way to, you know, continue to pay for things.

That was when de Meulles had a bright idea: If France wasn’t going to send him any money, he was just going to make his own. The medium of choice? Recommissioned playing cards:

By June 1685 these sources of funds were exhausted and de Meulles was forced to issue what were in effect promissory notes. These were issued in three denominations: 15 sols, 40 sols and 4 livres. Their circulation as money was guaranteed by a penalty of 50 livres for anyone who refused them in any payment or who sold goods for higher prices if they were paid for in the notes. The proclamation introducing the notes specified that they would be redeemed as soon as funds arrived from France. Because the notes were written on playing cards cut in different sizes according to denomination, they were referred to as “card money.”

The cards were a success. They circulated freely and evidently at face value and were redeemed in September 1685. However, by February 1686 the colonial treasury was again without funds and was forced to issue a new series of cards in 40-sol and 4-livre denominations. These were issued on the same terms as those of 1685 and were redeemed in September 1686.

Essentially, these cards, borne of necessity, existed as a stopgap because France was failing to send money to Canada quickly enough. And, as you might guess, King Louis XIV did not love this. For one thing, the cards were an easy format to counterfeit and threatened to create inflation. But for another—and this is the part that wasn’t quite so obvious at first—it turns out the slow doling out of money on the part of France was intentional, as the French government feared that New France was spending extravagantly, rather than the truth of the matter, which was that France’s attempt at control was making it impossible to do business in New France.

“In later years it became clear that a more serious objection was that the issue of cards weakened the king’s fiscal control over Canada,” McCullough wrote. (If that was the concern, maybe be better at distributing money to the colonies?)

This was an unusual state of affairs, proven more unusual by the fact that playing cards actually proved popular as a form of money, as the blogger Mlle Canadienne recalled: “The colony’s resources are limited. The playing cards are made of sturdy cardboard, made to withstand frequent handling. They have emerged as the most durable and affordable medium in the colony context.”

While full of problems—the ever-present effects of inflation being one, as was the not-always-fulfilled promise that the cards would eventually be replaced with actual money from the notably extravagant government of King Louis XIV, whose coffers were often cleared by the many costly wars of 17th century France—playing cards were incredibly useful from the perspective of convenience. Basing money on something people already commonly used and was relatively light in nature seemed like a significantly better idea than carrying around a bunch of coins.

The result was that this temporary stopgap continued in New France in one form or another for decades. Per the book Quebec on the Seventeenth Century, the makeshift currency had roughly 2 million Francs in circulation by 1714.

The inflation that card money created was untenable, so it was at one point removed from circulation, but there was no real alternative, so it was brought back into circulation after a few years. It took until the 1760s for French Canada to finally quit it, though its introduction had ripple effects throughout the French empire for decades afterward as it appeared throughout New France and in territories like modern-day Suriname. At one point during the French Revolution, card money briefly went into circulation in France itself.

All because France was slow at paying its overseas bills.

Tea Brick

Tea bricks, often produced from ground tea leaves, reflect a form of money you could technically eat if necessary. (Carl Guderian/Flickr)

Four unusual kinds of currency commonly accepted in various parts of the world before the modern day

  1. Tea bricks. Tea, for centuries, was a highly prominent subject of trade, and one that carried significant cultural value in the Asian continent in particular. Compressed tea bricks, whether in whole leaf or ground form, were widely used in China in particular. The value of tea was such that China, along with a few other countries like Tibet and Mongolia, utilized tea bricks as a form of currency, particularly among nomadic cultures. The bricks, of course, have a notable side effect that arguably added to their value—they can be eaten.
  2. Bamboo tallies. A later form of currency that emerged from China in the 19th and early 20th century was the bamboo tally, a wooden token that emerged in part because of economic challenges in China during the latter half of the 19th century. The tokens represented a form of “emergency money” that found wide use during the latter years of the Qing dynasty and even during the World Wars.
  3. Sea shells. A key example of the power and influence of trade, sea shells—particularly of the cowrie, a type of sea snail—became a prominent type of currency in mercantile settings, particularly in African countries. As the website Cultures of West Africa notes, it existed along other common kinds of currency, but eventually supplanted them. “By the 18th century, the cowrie had become the currency of choice along the trade routes of West Africa,” writer Mia Sogoba explained.
  4. Salt bricks. There’s a reason the word salary is derived from salt, after all. Nonetheless, the value of salt as a form of currency, particularly in countries around the Sahara desert and in East Africa, is very long lasting and certainly earned the name. A 1990 New York Times piece noted that salt remained in wide use in these countries until the time of the Second World War.

430k

The number of wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese held by Italy’s Credem Bank, which holds the wheels, produced by local cheese-makers, in exchange for a loan offered at a rate of 3 percent to 5 percent interest, according to a 2013 CNN piece. Part of the reason this works is because the cheese variant is very strongly regional, making its location—and accordingly, the wheels—very valuable.

Beer Caps

(Skippy/Flickr)

How bottle caps accidentally became a form of currency in Cameroon

Remember when it seemed like every bottle of Coke had a contest hiding underneath? One has to wonder what might have happened if we started paying for things in bottle caps.

In Cameroon, this was not a point of wonder, but something that briefly actually happened. Around 2005 or so, the country’s many beer-makers grew increasingly competitive and put on contests involving the bottle caps with a wide variety of prizes, ranging from free beer to luxury cars.

“Virtually every consumer of beer in Cameroon has a chance of winning,” noted journalist Martin Etonge, in comments to the BBC. “Sometimes you go out just for a bottle and you find yourself coming back with four or six free bottles because of winning caps.”

Since these winning caps were so common and could be exchanged for a bottle of beer (which cost roughly $1), it made the bottle caps particularly valuable as a makeshift form of currency, making it possible to use them for normal tasks, such as cab rides.

Some may see this as something of a stretch, as economic journalist Tim Harford did. Writing for the blog of the World Bank, Harford suggested it didn’t meet the definition of currency.

“Being nit-picky I’d say that this doesn’t actually qualify as a currency, unless the bottletops are circulating indefinitely without being cashed in,” he wrote.

Nonetheless suggested that the reason the idea even gained currency (heh) was because of weaknesses in the stable currency the country generally utilized. (It also suggests that the alcohol industry in Cameroon is really, really prominent.)

Currency has an amazing way of reflecting who we are as a society and what we represent. It can be a sign of how we have to adapt to shifting needs, or how inventive we are, or what we value. A currency is at its core a sign in the belief we have in a society.

If a country has to switch to bottle caps to cover cab fares, it arguably does not say good things about the country’s federal government.

There’s a concept constantly bandied about with cryptocurrency, particularly the kind that requires giant GPU farms to create, called “proof of work,” in which value is based on the effort put in, usually in the form of computational cycles.

But one can argue that proof of work existed long before cryptographic mining rigs. After all, people had to go to all the work of finding nuggets of gold and silver upon which we began to base our monetary systems.

Perhaps the best way of underlining this point is by taking a look at Yap, a Micronesian island with a population of just over 11,000 people. It is famed for its Rai, a set of flat, donut-holed stones that come in various sizes. Some of them are gigantic, and the really big ones were often very hard to obtain. Some of them are bigger than most people.

They are reflections of an important discovery that the Yapese people made long ago. On a far-away island, there was a huge deposit of limestone, and that limestone could be had if you could get your makeshift boat to that island and bring it back.

Rai Stone Money

(Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, the society figured out that this was their thing of value—this was their gold. And they long treated it as such. Now, to be clear, giant stone discs are no longer how the Yapese people do things today—they use the U.S. dollar, because it’s much easier to transport in regular use—but it in many ways reflected something basic and true about how money works. The giant stones are still used in ceremonial senses.

This is their proof of work. Someone had to take the time and effort to bring this limestone back to their island, and giving it to someone else meant that someone else had to carry this giant stone. It is perhaps the perfect example of a real object making the metaphor obvious. This is everything money represents in a perfect world with zero outside influence.

You can’t inflate something that you can’t even lift.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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