HISTORY OF MONEY IN THE UNITED STATES
Thousands of years ago, people used many different kinds of money. Sometimes they paid for food and clothes with animals as money. Sometimes they used food as money to buy things. Later, people began to use metal coins to buy things. They used silver, gold, and copper for money. At that time, silver was more important than gold. People often used silver and money.
Americans used many other kinds of money before they had dollars and cents. The first people who came to that country traded with the Indians they found there. The Algonquin Indians in the northeastern United States used shells for money and called it wampum. They also used beads, blankets, and animal furs for money. There were some problems when people used these things for money. They were large and heavy; people couldn’t carry them in their pockets. It was difficult to know how many beads or shells they needed to buy something.
More people went to America from many different countries. They brought louis d’ors from France, guineas from England, pistoles from Spain, and thalers from Germany. People used these coins in America too. There were problems when they only used coins. Sometimes they needed a lot of coins to buy something. A large number of coins is very heavy. It is difficult to find a safe place to keep a large number of coins.
Anyone could print money, and many people did. Banks, insurance companies, stores, and schools printed many different kinds of paper money. The money had different values; that is, it had a different meaning in different places. The same money might have more value in Massachusetts than it did in New York.
In 1863, President Lincoln made a law. This law said that only the United States government could print money. The law gave them the kind of money they have today. At that time, people could take their money to banks. At the banks they could get a certain amount of silver in exchange for the money. In 1873, the banks began to give gold for paper money. The idea worked if too many people did not go to the banks at the same time. Banks did not always have enough gold. The government stopped this about 50 years ago. Americans can no longer go to banks and get gold for their money. The government will not exchange anything for paper money.
The value of money they use today is not the same as animals or food. It is not the same as an amount of silver, gold, or copper. The way people used money a long time ago may have been easier than it is today. They knew what is meant. Today the money in our pockets means different things at different times.
Adapted from Time & Space: A Basic Reader (1996)
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