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HAVE YOU STOPPED USING COINS TOO? Credit card and online transactions have all but eliminated my use of metallic cash. I used to collect them in a baggie and, once filled, I’d swap them at a supermarket coin changer for little slips of paper redeemable at local restaurants. The baggie is still on my desk, but its contents grow at a diminishing rate.
Yet it was with interest that I read “What the Badger Found,” by Michael Kulikowski in London Review of Books, February 2, 2023.
Kulikowski’s experience mirrors mine: “All the shops on my university campus have gone cashless. The vendors at our farmers’ market use little card readers that plug into their phones.”
He notes that “By recent historical standards this is an aberration. Since the 1850s and 1860s, when banknotes were standardised in Britain and the United States respectively, most people, most of the time, have thought of money in terms of coins and paper banknotes, marked with numbers to indicate their value in relation to one another and to the goods and services for which they can be exchanged. For many centuries before that, coins alone had that role.”
And, Kulikowski observes, “Money can exist without leaving a trace behind. Coinage cannot, which makes it valuable for historians.”
The two books of his LRB review are When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics, by Frank L. Holt, Oxford University Press, 2021; and Coin Hoards and Hoarding in the Roman World, by Jerome Mairat, Andrew Wilson, and Chris Howgego, Oxford University Press, 2022. What follows here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from Kulikowski’s review, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
Origins. “The western history of coinage begins in southwest Asia Minor,” Kulikowski says, “where electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, is found in rivers such as the Pactolus and Maeander. In the sixth century bc, local big men began putting marks on the little blobs of electrum that were already serving as money, first punching stamps on one side, later adding more complicated designs on the other.”
From Metallic Blobs to Specified Values. Kulikowski continues, “Not long after these proto-coins were invented, it was realised that electrum could be refined into its component metals and so gold and silver coins began to be struck as well. While all three metals had intrinsic value, once the markings on them were calibrated to correlate with size, the metal lumps no longer needed to be weighed. Their value as bullion was unchanged, but they had become coins.”
Rich as…. “The Greeks,” Kulikowski says, “with their addiction to origin stories, ascribed the invention of coinage to Croesus of Lydia, and it is certainly true that he minted the first gold coins of fairly uniform weight and purity.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, we (and Kulikowski) take an etymological bent on coinage. We also learn why his LRB title cited a badger. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023
When future archeologists say 5000 years from now study our society they’ll conclude that we had no method of organized trade or any means of record keeping or written communication because there will be no records left after whatever apocalypse befalls us.
If they find remnants of our electronics or transportation they’ll conclude that these must have been left by alien visitors/invaders, because they won’t believe that a society as described above could have made such creations.
But in all seriousness while I have become almost totally cashless in my daily life I do keep a few emergency bills in my wallet for the odd business that hasn’t made it into the 21st. Century yet (like an ice cream stand near where we live).
It also strikes me that if a not quite full apocalypse occurs (major extended power outage, major earthquake in some places) cash reserves might come in handy, as many individuals may not be willing to trade critical resources (food, fuel etc) for future IOUs.