Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Counting farthings in London, 1939
Photo: William Vanderson (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Historical currencies

What it’s about: Money! The kind of money you can’t spend, because it’s no longer accepted as viable currency, like the arcade tickets you earned over the course of a whole summer playing Skee-Ball trying to win a giant stuffed Sonic The Hedgehog, but which only added up to a third of what you needed, the arcade going out of business before you could earn the full amount, and all the tickets becoming worthless, and you’re not still bitter after all these years, not at all. Except, you know, in the historical sense.


Yes, various countries have let their system of currency fall by the wayside in favor of newer, shiner coinage, and some countries have themselves fallen by the wayside, making their money a historical curiosity.

Biggest controversy: While Britain held on tightly to the pound as the rest of Europe switched to the euro (perhaps an early indication that the U.K. wasn’t entirely committed to the EU), it’s the only British coin that isn’t a relative newcomer. Once, there were four farthings in a pence, 12 pence in a shilling, two shillings in a florin, 20 shillings in a pound, and 21 shillings in a guinea (after 1717; before that, its value fluctuated with the price of gold, ranging from 20 to 30 shillings). For some reason, this incredibly elegant and logical system was replaced on Decimal Day in 1971 (also observed in tIreland), with new coins based on a system of multiples of five and 10.


Strangest fact: On several occasions, the French have used playing cards as money. While New France was being settled, hard currency was difficult and dangerous to ship—a literal boatload of money was a tempting target for thieves. So to cover the colony’s expenses during wars with the Iroquois, the colonial governor started printing money on playing cards to pay his soldiers. Louisiana soon followed suit. In both cases, card money wasn’t undone by its poor quality or ease of counterfeiting, but simply because the French made too much of it, and inflation soon rendered it worthless.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Ancient Koreans used the most badass money of all time. While it’s not listed here, some side research on the Korean currency page reveals that the earliest Korean currency was knife money—coins shaped like knives, which may or may not have evolved from soldiers trading their actual knives for other goods. Metal coins wouldn’t be minted until 996 AD. Four hundred years later, Korea tried importing coins from China, and the currency failed, to be replaced by the jeohwa, made from black mulberry bark (presumably in place of paper).


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Our inner 8-year-old is unhappiest that Sumatra’s defunct “dudu” doesn’t have its own page. But our serious adult self is disappointed that so many coins from the ancient world don’t have pages. The Persis, Parthian, and Sassanian iterations of the Persian empire had their own money, as did Corinth, and apparently the Aegean Sea (we assume that’s what “Aeginian” refers to) in ancient Greece, not to mention ancient Lydia’s (now western Turkey) Trite and Hekte, and five different types of money from ancient Armenia (only the dram has its own page).

Also noteworthy: The aforementioned florin was used not just in Britain, but in Austria, Italian city-states, Aragon (now part of Spain), and The Princess Bride. Author William Goldman borrowed the name of the defunct coin for the kingdom in his classic tale; its rival country, Guilder, was named for the currency of the Netherlands, which was replaced by the euro in 2002.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Far and away, Tin Animal Money. From the 15th through the 18th century, the Malay royal court ruled over what’s now mainland Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the southern tip of Myanmar. Wikipedia doesn’t provide much information, but it seems the money was used at court, and not necessarily by the wider public, though a similar currency was used in three Malaysian states, though, again, Wikipedia doesn’t say how similar. Despite the lack of specifics, the link is worth clicking for the photos, which are of tiny, elaborate tin sculptures, which probably weren’t the most practical currency, but way more fun than those 50 state quarters.

Further down the Wormhole: While these currencies have all fallen by the wayside, the United States dollar is going strong, currently the most widely used currency in the world. But the U.S. has its own failed money. During the Revolutionary War, each state printed its own separate money (which lost value steadily as the war went on), until the Coinage Act of 1792 established the USD as the country’s official moolah. Until that happened, however, interstate trade was a mess of confusing exchange rates, and a Rhode Island pound did not travel well. Despite being small, Rhode Island has lots of fascinating history, perhaps none more so than the New England vampire panic. We’ll look at that bizarre episode and why it wasn’t the name of a ’90s emo band next week.


Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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