Everything happens for the first time, but only once. Today we take our cash for granted. Coins fall into couch cushions or roll around the floor of the car, and bills spend the summer months hidden away in coat pockets. But those pieces of paper and metal have a history that goes back hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years to ancient civilizations.
Many peoples of the world relied on bartering instead of established “currency,” but the oldest “money” ever found – not one useful good traded for another – was made from small pieces of obsidian. These bits of black volcanic glass were used in what is not called Turkey as far back as 12,000 BC.
To fast forward a bit, the Chinese invented paper thousands of years ago in 100 BC, so it’s only fitting that they used the first printed paper money. The word for it translated roughly to “flying money” because the wind could so easily blow it away if you weren’t careful. Though they used it for the first time, they didn’t use it for long. It wasn’t used consistently again until the 18th century in France.
The ever inventive ancient Sumerians, credited with books, organized time, domesticated animals, and the wheel, also used the first coins. The value of each metal ingot was determined by weight.
Building on a good idea, the slightly less ancient Romans were the first to put a person’s face on their money.
While the USA is much younger than the ancient inventors, we do have our share of firsts to celebrate. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first colony to make its own money. They began with coins in 1652 and developed “bills of credit” in 1690.
The first officially minted coin to circulate the country was called the Chain Cent. It was first made in 1793 and was only made for one year, mostly because nobody liked it. It featured a liberty head with long, flowing hair on one side and what people called a “frightful” expression, and a chain with 15 links representing the 15 states on the other. On its first batch, the engraver ran out of space, so the coins venerate the “United States of Ameri.” They weren’t very popular then, but today they’re worth thousands of dollars.
While our first president, George Washington, is profiled on the one dollar bill now, he wasn’t the first face of paper money in the U.S. The first dollar, printed in 1862, exhibited the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase.
Each of these firsts was a product of necessity. No one made them thinking they’d ever be more valuable than they were meant to be. And while money has been the root of most of our major conflicts, a centralized currency is one of the signs of an organized, cooperative economy, and its history shows how inventive we have always been and how much we’ve grown.