Brooklyn, New York

The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn

While it now takes more than a dime to open an account this historic Brooklyn bank still displays the opulence of the gilded age in which it was built
21 Oct 2014
Memphis, Tennessee

St. Peter’s Spiritual Temple

A reclusive Memphis neighborhood is home to decades worth of misunderstood Masonic folk art
21 Oct 2014
Brooklyn, New York

The New York and New Jersey Telephone Company Building

As telephones become more essential and less stylish one historic Brooklyn building remembers the days when they were a grand celebration of communication
21 Oct 2014
Queens, New York

The Abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad

A once crucial portion of the Long Island railroad still lays abandoned, waiting to be turned into an urban park
21 Oct 2014
Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania

Lazaratto Quarentine Station

America's oldest quarantine facility is now falling victim to the incurable disease of time
21 Oct 2014
Minden, Nebraska

Harold Warp's Pioneer Village

This replica small town lets visitors take a stroll through the story of progress in the U.S. via thousands of Americana artifacts
20 Oct 2014


A Brief Guide to Impractical Currencies

by Thomas Harper / 21 Oct 2014

In modern economies, we use an agreed-upon medium of exchange, or currency, to trade with merchants, corporations, and our neighbors. Throughout history, this has most often been domestic animals, agricultural staples like rice and barley, salt, beads, cowry shells, precious metal, and government-backed legal tender. These are things that can be led or carried by the owner. However, what if your currency is an enormous limestone disc that can be over three meters in diameter and weigh four metric tons? What if it is a shovel blade that one can put the handle back in and use in the field? Some agreed-upon currencies used throughout history, and even in the modern day, we would consider impractical.

article-imageYap stone in Micronesia (photograph by tata_aka_T/Flickr)

On the Micronesian island of Yap stand the Rai stones. Limestone is a very rare mineral in this area of the Pacific. The stone was quarried mainly from the island of Palau, with Guam supplying some for a time as well. Originally fashioned into the shape of fish, and later as circular discs, these stones are still used today, though mainly for social transactions like marriage by the Yapese. Instead of carrying these behemoths across the island, giving the stone can be as simple as saying it belongs to a new owner, and the “bank statement” would be the oral history of the stone’s possessors. Not all Rai stones are colossal, and vary in value by their history, as well as size. Even a stone that sank into the ocean is still considered owned, because it is agreed upon that the stone is still there, and it has a history.

In ancient Greece, rods of various metals were used as currency before coins. These are the oboloi (singular obolos, or obol in English) — rods of iron, copper, or silver about a meter in length. In Athens, six oboloi equaled one drachma, meaning “handful.” The word passed into usage as the name of Greece’s currency until the euro was adopted. Even after the introduction of coins, Plutarch wrote that Sparta kept using oboloi to discourage the pursuit of wealth over deeds in battle. One obolos could buy a ritual cup with wine.



A drachma of oboloi (via Odysses/Wikimedia)

In Zhou Dynasty China, there are two examples of tools being used as currency. Spades and weeding tools with the handle taken off were used in northeast China. This is known as spade money. When first used, the spade kept the hole so the handle could be reattached. In time, the money of the area and era kept the spade shape, but shrank to a more manageable size. In some areas, various stories took hold about how knives became traded, and then for 400 years, knife money became the currency. These knives weren’t edged, but they did have the same shape and dimensions as common knives of the time.