The History of Money

The History of Money

Coins must be among the objects we handle most and think about least. They weigh a ridiculous amount in relation to their value, wear out our pockets and handbag linings, and jingle at inopportune moments. Indeed, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer unveils the prototype for a new, supposedly counterfeit-proof £1 coin, based on the 12-sided pre-decimal threepenny bit, we might reasonably ask why, in this age of ever‑increasing monetary digitalisation, we need coins at all?

When was the last time you wavered over a purchase for the sake of 3p or 4p saved? Why, apart from keeping the 99p bargain supermarket chain in business, or allowing retailers to offer us their products for £49.99 rather than £50, does the penny continue to exist?

The penny! At a time when you can do your week’s shopping by tapping a card on a reader, when retailers are increasingly ready to accept the smallest card payments and you can buy just about anything anywhere in the world without moving from your chair, the whole idea of the penny feels positively medieval. To some, that will give it an appeal. But then, middens, witchhunting and breaking on the wheel were also medieval and we haven’t kept those traditions.

In our streamlined information age, where we aspire to mobility and adaptability, unencumbered by extraneous things, fiddling around with handfuls of copper- and nickel-plated steel, never there in the precise amounts you want them, makes no sense whatsoever.

Yet according to Ben Alsop, curator in the department of coins and medals at the British Museum, coins aren’t likely to be disappearing any time soon. “You can learn a lot about societies from the way they deal with money. Coins have been around for 2,500 years, and over that time the relations between people and money haven’t changed much.

“Coins bring a sense of security. We heard a lot a few years ago about coins being phased out. But that has really died down. When banks go bust and countries collapse, people want to get their money out in the most tangible form they can, and it doesn’t get more tangible than coins. People feel a lot of nostalgia for coins. They feel their personal histories are bound up with coins that are passed on to them.”

Coins, in a sense, tell us who we are. It isn’t quite as it was in the pre-decimal days before 1971, when you’d quite commonly find an image of a relatively young-looking Queen Victoria or a worn, almost ghostly profile of Edward VII in your change, but with coins you are holding history in your hand.

The £1 coin will seem to those of a certain age to have arrived only yesterday. But it is, we are reminded by the Royal Mint, more than 30 years old, and in the form we have known it is about to slip into the past; its distinctive appearance and characteristic weightiness as much a product of the Eighties as Sloane Rangers and Wham’s haircuts.

Coins are indicators of that vexed phenomenon of Britishness, with their immemorial, sometimes cryptic insignia, and Latin mottos that few of us understand. The names we have given them are links to the past: the florin, the two-shilling piece issued until 1967, took its name from Florence, a centre of the Renaissance banking system. Indeed, the essential form of coins is little changed since classical times: the profile of the ruler on one side, an iconic power symbol on the other, executed by a sculptor (these are, after all, three‑dimensional objects) in a shallow relief style that has hardly developed at least since the 18th century.

“We’re hearing a lot today about combating counterfeiting,” Alsop says. “But counterfeiting has been around as long as coins have, and it’s had an effect on the way people feel about money. They want to feel secure when they receive it and secure when they give it. So money tends to be conservative in its appearance.

“It comes down to a base level of what people know and feel secure with. The new £1 coin has the hi-tech, bi-metallic element, which we’ve seen in the £2 coin, but it also has a feeling of nostalgia brought about by the resemblance to the old threepenny bit, which was first produced in the Queen’s father’s reign, and is associated with her coronation.”

For a long time the imagery on coins hardly shifted from one decade to the next, but more recently lower denomination coins have started bearing fragments of heraldic imagery, in an attempt at a kind of modernist coin design, while 50p pieces and £2 coins are used to celebrate current events and anniversaries – the Olympics, the Battle of Britain, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade – in a way that has long been the case with stamps.

I will, of course, be told that anyone who’s so tight he gives his children their pocket money in the form of coins isn’t entitled to an opinion. But for me the durability of the coin represents a resistance to the triumph of pure information, to transactions that take place in an abstract digital ether we can’t see or touch or smell. Handing over and receiving coins is the nearest many of us get to touching people we don’t know and interacting with them on a level of basic human civility.