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

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)

California Clams

(National Museum of American History)

Still have those shells you collected at the beach? Back in the day, they could have been shelled out for your next purchase. Shells were one of the most widely used objects for transactions on almost every continent. In America, they were used as late as 1933, in the city of Pismo Beach, California, during the Great Depression, when there was a currency shortage and shells served as ready currency. The clamshells were inscribed with the same information you’d find on a note, complete with “In God We Trust.” (Pictured: 1 Dollar Clam Shell, United States, 1933)

The First U.S. Cent

(© Don Troiani/Corbis)

Coins didn't always say "In God We Trust." In 1787, Congress authorized the first U.S. cent, known as the Fugio cent, made of copper. It featured an image of a sundial, and underneath, stated “Mind Your Business.” These were the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, who is credited with designing the coin. (Pictured: Fugio 1787 copper cent)

Shilling From the Colonies

(National Museum of American History)

Rebelling against the crown, American colonists in the Massachusetts Colony started creating their own coins in 1652 during the interregnum—an 11-year period when there was no ruler in England. King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and the throne was not recovered until 1660. Creating coins had been an offense against the crown so clever colonists smartly crafted coins even after the throne was restore simply post dating them to 1652 long after the year had passed.  (Pictured: Shilling coin, Massachusetts Colony, 1667-74)

Money Does Grow on Trees

(National Museum of American History )

Although paper money had been around for decades in other countries, the United States had the first economy based on paper. The earliest note was issued by the Massachusetts colony in 1690. The colonists would have preferred coin, but the British limited how much coinage could come to the U.S. (Pictured: 20 shilling note, Colonial America, 1690-91)

Blood Money

(National Museum of American History)

Colonial money stated, “To Counterfeit is Death” and they weren’t joking. Counterfeiting was a crime punishable by execution. During the Revolutionary War, British loyalist counterfeiters David Farnsworth and John Blair were caught with $10,000 in counterfeit and hanged. Today, punishment includes up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine. (Pictured: 9 pence note, Colonial America, 1777)

The Secret Service

(© Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Corbis)

Today the Secret Service guards and protects presidents and their families, but the agency was originally created to suppress counterfeit money. During the Civil War, a reported one third of the currency in circulation was counterfeit. In 1865, the Secret Service was created to track down those villainous fabricators, closing more than 200 counterfeiting plants in its first year.

$100,000 Bill

(National Museum of American History)

The $100,000 bill, a 1934 Gold Certificate, is the largest denomination ever printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. However, the bill was never circulated and was reserved only for use by the Federal Reserve for large transactions. A total of 42,000 certificates were produced and later discontinued in 1935. All but a dozen or so were destroyed. It is illegal to possess the bill, which is why you’ve probably never seen one. (Pictured: 100,000 dollar gold certificate, United States, 1934)

The 1933 Double Eagle

(National Museum of American History)

Worth millions, the 1933 Double Eagle gold coins continue to captivate people. After Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to abandon the gold standard in 1933 and all gold coins were ordered exchanged for paper currency. All but two of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed Double Eagle $20 coins (which came to the Smithsonian as "coins of record") were destroyed. However, a handful of coins disappeared from the Philadelphia Mint just as the last were sent to be melted down. No one really knows how many survived. In 2005, ten suddenly showed up, evidently having escaped the melting chambers. The government confiscated them. But in April 2015, a federal court ruled that the rare $20 gold Double Eagle coins returned to a Pennsylvania family. (Pictured: 20 “Double Eagle” dollar coin, United States, 1933)

A Day Late and A Dollar Short

(National Museum of American History)

Notice the lack of women on U.S. currency? Martha Washington has been the only historic woman with her portrait on U.S. paper currency on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891 and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896. Although the "Women on 20s" campaign pushed to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 with a significant American woman, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently announced that a woman would instead be featured on the $10, in 2020. The question remains, who? (Pictured: 1 dollar silver certificate, United States, 1896)

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