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The history of currency stretches back 40,000 years. The first currency was not money as we know it today but was rather the bartering of sought-after objects between different groups. As people and the world have evolved, so has money. Its form has changed over thousands of years from objects found in nature, to silver and gold, paper money, and eventually the credit cards that we are familiar with today. Many would argue that money is one of the most important aspects of society and what many people’s lives revolve around, making the history of money that much more important to learn about.
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The US dollar was modeled on the Spanish currency, the peso, and its origin can be traced back to 1785. There is no confirmed theory on the origin of the famous dollar sign, but it is believed that it came about as an abbreviation of ‘peso’ and thus written as an “S” with a strike through it to symbolize the shortened version. This is the dollar symbol that is known all around the world today.
The euro is one of the youngest currencies. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which was responsible for the creation of the European Union (EU), and came into effect in 1993, also included the adoption of a single currency, the euro. The euro’s design was decided by designers submitting their ideas and a winner was decided through a poll. The “€” symbol is a Greek symbol meant to represent the first letter in the word “Europe”. The lines running through the middle of the “€” symbolizes the stability of the euro.
Commonly known as the British pound, the meaning behind the currency’s name can be traced back to the Latin word “libra” which may be translated to balances or scales. It is believed that the pound was given this name because it was originally made up of one pound of solid silver.
Although money is what most of the world revolves around, the paper notes themselves have no real value. Their value is only what people believe it to be. Money, although not in the form that we know it today, has existed for thousands of years. Historians believe that bartering was the earliest currency, and the items that were bartered between different groups were not uniform and took the form of plants, shoes, crops, or whatever it was that the other party viewed as valuable. Eventually, over many centuries, a currency developed that included the trading of accessible items such as animal pelts, weapons, and salt. The value of these items was commonly open to negotiation. Over time, this method of trade traveled across the world and it still exists in some parts of the world today.
There is evidence that early civilizations such as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia used money. However, we don’t have as much knowledge about the money they used as compared to say, pottery and tools. Household items of little value were thrown out more often than money which is usually utilized until it wears out, unless it is made out of precious metals. Then it may be melted down and made into more coins or another valuable item.
Before coins, silver rings were used as money in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Aristocratic Mesopotamians are believed to have started using money as early as 2500BC. The first objects used as money were clay tokens which were used to keep track of payments made and monies owed before a writing system was created. Clay tokens have been found that can be dated back to 3300BC. As the trading system in Mesopotamia became more advanced, specific tokens came to represent certain objects being traded. Eventually there were 16 different tokens that represented frequently traded goods, among them livestock, grain, clothing. As society became more highly developed and the number of tokens increased, the entire system became far too complex to keep track of. It is thought that around 2500BC, a shekel of silver became the most common currency in the area, and this is believed to be the world’s oldest currency. A shekel is a monetary unit still found in modern-day Israel and is ⅓ of an ounce of silver. As time went on, more people were paid in shekels and lawbreakers were fined in shekels.
It is believed that cowry shells derived from a type of sea snail were the earliest form of currency used in China and were used in the Neolithic period - spanning 3900-1700 BC. Copper coins were introduced around 210BC when China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang banned all other local currencies. The Chinese invented paper currency in the 9th century, however copper coins remained the dominant currency of China until the yuan was introduced towards the end of the 19th century. The renminbi is now China’s official currency and is also one of the world’s reserve currencies.
Currencies have evolved drastically over millennia, from bartering to the introduction of coins and their changing designs. Coins were joined by paper notes and now certain currencies are doing away with these completely as polymer notes are introduced more widely. The presence of physical notes cannot be guaranteed for much longer as electronic currency becomes increasingly popular, be it in the form of credit cards, debit cards, or even electronic banking.
As with many things in the world, currencies around the world have been products of evolution. From man’s earliest days, objects were traded in exchange for other objects seen as equally valuable. Although money takes many different shapes and forms, it continues to be a motivator for the majority of the world’s population. As technology advances, it will be interesting to see how currencies of the future are affected.