The Evolution of Money, From Feathers to Credit Cards

Coin collectors, and trinket lovers welcome back the National Numismatic Collections to its splendid new gallery at the American History Museum

(© Chat Roberts/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In the back closet of a large room that houses the entirety of the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection, sits the taxidermic specimen of a Quetzal bird—curators call him Fred.

The metallic green and blue feathers shimmer in the light and it’s clear why this bird was so treasured— he is a tropical beauty. Found in the rain forests of Central America, the endangered bird held much significance for Mayan civilization. It was illegal to kill the bird, but its feathers were once used as currency, usually to purchase gold.

Today, though its feathers are no longer used for purchases, the bird remains highly revered in Central American culture, and Guatemalan money is actually called a quetzal. This taxidermic specimen is one of more than 1.6 million objects in the National Numismatic Collection, the largest in North America and one of the largest in the world.

After the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, the numismatic collection slowly began expanding in the late 1800s. However, the most important event came in 1923 when then-Secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, ordered the transfer of 18,324 coins from the U.S. Mint collection in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. for safekeeping and as part of a way to build the national collection.  

As Jeff Garrett, author of the Encyclopedia of United States Gold Coins, writes in his brief history of the National Numismatic Collection, “ One letter I have seen in the Smithsonian collection from this period states: ‘the transfer of this collection to Washington will mean the shifting of the numismatic center of gravity, so to speak, in the United States from Philadelphia to Washington.’ This was no understatement!”

To display the richness of the collection, the National Museum of American History recently opened the exhibition “The Value of Money.” Located in the newly renovated first floor Innovation Wing, the gallery beckons visitors to pass through a polished steel vault door into a softly-lit room to view more than 400 artifacts from the collection, from shells, feathers and credit cards to the highly valued 1933 Double Eagle $20 dollar coin and an extremely rare $100,000 bill. Much more than a display of old coins, the exhibition showcases the creative intricacy and design of historic legal tender and details its backstories and allure. 

“Our exhibit represents the opportunity to show the diversity and strengths of this collection and to excite people to think about history, culture and innovation through numismatic objects,” says curator Ellen Feingold.  “We embrace the theme of innovation, but we also really embrace the value of monetary objects for learning about history.” 

Stones From the Island of Yap

(National Museum of American History)

Need cold, hard cash? Well, that’s what you’ll literally find on Yap— the island of stone money. The circular disks carved from limestone known as Rai, were brought over from Palau, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Though the stones range in size, the larger ones can weigh thousands of pounds and were used for big transactions such as funeral payments, dowries or land purchases. Although the island now uses U.S. currency, Rai stones are still occasionally exchanged. (Pictured: Rai stone ring from the Island of Yap, 20th century)

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