In one form or another, money has existed as purchasing power unit For thousands of years. Used to obtain goods or services, materials and formats have evolved over time, but have always been a representation of value by a particular society. From barter to livestock to physical and digital currency, there has been a continuous evolution of what people have used for payment. Let’s look at five ways money has changed throughout history.
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Cowries contain many qualities that have made them a perfect fit for currency. They were durable, easily identified, portable, and almost impossible to counterfeit – and their uniform size made them easy to count or weigh. With the expansion of use by Europeans, shells became the primary currency used in the slave trade and were commonly used along West African trade routes. Their use reached its peak in the 18th century and remained a source of payment and a reflection of status well into the 20th century. Cowries come from a mollusc that has been abundant in the Maldives Islands, where they were collected from the large leaves of coconut palms that had been placed in shallow lagoons. The cowries ate the debris above the leaves. When enough cowries were collected, the leaves were pulled out of the water and left on the beach, where the cowries died in the sun. They would be buried in the sand and after the flesh had decayed, the empty shells would be left for use.
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The first time metal coins were recognizably used as currency was between 550 and 600 BCE in Lydia – an ancient kingdom located in modern Turkey. The Lydians had previously mined a mixture of metals called electrum of the Pactolus River for use in coins. Corn King Croesus advanced coins as currency to the next level. He was responsible for creating the first pure gold and pure silver coins through a process that separated gold and silver, present in electrum. All coins had images of a lion on them, and the size of the image connoted value. More valuable coins had a whole lion, while those of lesser value only had a lion’s paw. Croesus’ method of standardizing coins increased their circulation and use, and the capital of Sardis became a hub of business.
The Chinese were responsible for the creation of paper money in the 7th century as a more efficient means of transacting, compared to coins. It wasn’t until the 1600s that paper money was used in Europe, starting with Sweden. By the late 1700s, paper money was in use across Europe. There were two forms of paper money: “bills”, which were converted into coins, and “drafts”, which were receipts for specific values that were stored in accounts. The concept and use of paper money eventually made its way to the United States in 1690. It was first used in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, initially to fund military expeditions. In 1913, the Federal Reserve created a national banking system to meet the changing financial needs of the country. And in 1914, they issued the first federal note: a ten dollar bill.
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The first general-purpose credit card was the Diners’ Club card in 1950, followed by American Express in 1958. These credit cards charged cardholders an annual fee, as well as monthly billing. The first national credit card was launched statewide by Bank of America in the late 1950s and later renamed Visa in 1976. An enterprising IBM engineer named Forrest Parry created the magnetic tape for use on credit cards, as a means of storing information and protecting security. Eventually, a PIN and chip became the norm in the mid-1990s. In just over 70 years, we’ve gone from the credit card as a new monetary concept to something ubiquitous. The average American has four credit cards each and owes $6,194.
With the launch of Paypal in 1998, electronic/digital payments became possible at scale, transforming the way financial transactions could be conducted. From there, mobile payments evolved through the use of apps, including Apple Pay, Venmo, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Cash App. There is a variety of functions this can be accomplished through mobile payments, depending on the app. Some allow payment for goods or services, while others transfer bank funds. Sometimes called a digital wallet, these apps are a convenient method for making payments, as well as storing other financial information. Some digital wallets can organize and access your credit/debit cards, boarding passes, gift cards, loyalty cards, hotel reservations and concert tickets.