For just about as long as humanity has existed, so too, in one form or another, has currency. After all, while today the term money is synonymous with coins and paper or polymer bills, this is not and has not always been the case. Throughout human history many different objects have been used as money, and while these items might strike you as a weird currency to have (in some instances you’d be right), in many of them utility played a role, and arguably a much bigger one than in the form of money we hold so valuable today. But we’ll leave it up to the readers to decide, so here it is: a list of the world’s strangest currencies.
Knife money is the term used to refer to large pieces of bronze cast in the shape of knives that was produced for use as currency by a number of Chinese governments and kingdoms between the years 600 to 200 BC. There are many stories that explain the origins of knife money, unfortunately the legitimacy of these cannot be confirmed. One of the more popular tales goes like this: A prince, running low on funds with which to pay his troops, allowed them to use their knives as currency to barter with the villagers. The medium became so popular that it caught on and a currency became formed around it.
Knife money is an example of commodity money, the value held by it pertaining not just to its value as currency, but also to the material with which it was made. So while the shape might seem unorthodox today, conceptually knife money is not so very different from a hundred-odd years ago, when many western currencies still made use of gold and silver coins in addition to promissory notes.
This next one might truly strike readers (cheese-lovers aside) as a strange currency to have. You might think, “Well yeah, I guess back in the Middle Ages they had some weird barter systems in place”, and while you’d be right – parmesan cheese has been used for financial purposes since the Dark Ages – this is also something that is carried on today. Credito Emiliano, a bank in Northern Italy, to this day accepts parmesan as collateral for loans. Weird? Maybe not. One wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese can go for thousands of dollars, and Credito Emiliano has roughly 360,000 wheels of the stuff stored away in climate-controlled warehouses.
By accepting parmesan as collateral, Credito Emiliano has helped keep cheese producers in Northern Italy in business through one of the worst recessions Italy has seen since the Second World War, and this traffic in cheese does not seem to have hurt the bank either. After all, there will always be demand for parmesan.
Tea bricks, finely ground or whole leaves of tea compressed into bricks, is another consumable substance that has been used for currency. Indeed, the history of tea bricks in use as money goes back even farther than parmesan. From the 9th century all the way up until the 20th, tea bricks have been utilized in place of coins or paper money. It was popular throughout Asia, but especially in China, Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. According to Stuart Mosher (one-time acting curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian Museum) this tea-money was even preferable to coins or other hard valuables in many areas, as it was not just a beverage but served as a medicine for coughs and colds. The fact that the bricks were sometimes bound with yak dung was evidently overlooked.
The bulk and weight of transporting these bricks, as well as the instability of value (depending upon how flooded the market was) are no doubt strong factors in the currency’s decline, but even today tea comes second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage.
To any familiar with the North American fur trade, it may not surprise you to see the presence of fur on our list, but the use of animal pelts as currency has a history that goes several centuries before the fur trade in the North American colonies took off. In Russia and Finland in the Middle Ages, the furs of marten, squirrels and hares, were used either on their own or to supplement gold and silver as currency. Medieval Russia in particular had perhaps the most highly developed system of fur currency – with 11th and 12th century law codes suggesting a fixed ratio existed between furs and silver coins. Initially furs had to be whole, but as trade expanded so too did the demand for money, and eventually snouts, claws, ears, and even one inch circles of hide with a government stamp became valid in their own right.
Furs gave way to coin as the standard of currency in Russia in the early 15th century, but with the emergence of the fur trade in North America in the 17th century fur would again become the main form of money in a huge swath of the north for another few centuries. Only after Canadian confederation did the fur trade slowly begin to collapse.
Perhaps the most bizarre and seemingly impractical form of currency is that of the giant circular limestone discs known as rai stones, found on the Micronesian island of Yap. While the stones were quarried on nearby islands, most notably Palau, and brought to Yap by raft and canoe, they were so large that once set in place on the land it was too difficult to make moving them practical. As such, the monetary system surrounding these rai stones was predominantly an oral one. It was less the physical possession of the stone so much as the record of the transaction made in the oral history that mattered. This fact is most heavily emphasized by the story wherein a rai stone was lost to the sea floor, but as all parties agreed the stone must still be there, it continued to be used as valid currency.
Although the US dollar has replaced the rai stone as an everyday currency, the stones are still exchanged during more high profile transactions, such as marriage, political deals and inheritance.
Stay informed. Stay Current.