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In for a Penny: The Design Evolution of Money

As the Royal Mail unveils a new design for the one pound coin, we chart the trajectory of currency design from boulders to Bitcoin

Money isn’t real. The coins, notes and digital transfers we use to buy things are merely proxies for an abstract idea of value. Whether created by the state or by individuals, cash is a simple and convenient medium to handle exchanges of goods and services which has no inherent worth. But it wasn’t always this way. The earliest money had to be an object considered equal in value to what was being bought. The question of how to design a means of exchange has seen currency appear as everything from jewellery to wooden boards to giant rocks, swapping intrinsic material worth for their given value as objects in a globally acknowledged system.

First Coins

Early Electrum Coins, 7th Century BC

The earliest known coins were found in western Turkey, in what used to be the Iron Age kingdom of Lydia. Unstandardised in weight and minted only for certain individuals, it is likely that the earliest coins as we know them today were symbolic objects, decorated with animals of spiritual or religious importance. Electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, gives the coins their distinctive, warm sheen into which the design was punched onto one side.

Sumerian Shells

Shells, 6th Century BC

Many early forms of currency facilitated the visual flaunting of wealth. Shells, often those of cowries, could be worked and shaped, creating objects that achieved a form of inherent value through their use as jewellery. All over the world, particularly in China, the design of money was driven not only by the availability of the cowry shell, but by a fascination with its form and its status as a symbol of wealth.


Rai (Stone Money), 2nd Century

Islands such as Yap in the western Pacific would carry out important, symbolic exchanges, such as changes in land ownership and dowries, using giant rocks known as Rai stones as their currency. The stones were impossible to carry around or use for everyday purchases, but it was a universally recognised and practically immobile symbol of wealth (the largest up to 3.6m in diameter), that would simply change owners whenever a trade took place. Crafted from limestone found over 250 miles from the island, before being laboriously transported back, everyone would know who owned which rock and when it changed hands, regardless of its location.

Even when a Rai stone allegedly sunk to the bottom of the ocean while being transported back to Yap, it remained a valid form of currency. In fact, stories such as this, along with any deaths or injuries caused during transportation, often increased the stone’s value. Rai stones are no longer produced but their value is fixed and remains acknowledged. While the US dollar is now used for everyday transactions, the stones are still known to change hands at weddings or disputes over land.

Chinese Jiazo

Chinese Jiaozi, 10th Century

The advent of paper money presented a blank slate. When Chinese merchants found that their strings of metal coins were becoming too heavy to carry, they could opt to leave them with someone trustworthy in exchange for a note that would allow them to be reclaimed when presented. Many of these early promissory notices and receipts show a desire to visually depict the trust and civility involved in the shift from commodity objects to representative money.

Above, a drawing of two merchants carrying bags of grain alludes to those making the transaction, and sits alongside 10 coins and the writing ‘With the exception of Szechuan, this may be circulated in the various provinces and districts to make public and private payments representing 770 cash per string’. This is not far removed from Rai stones; the strings of coins could be anywhere, all the paper does is provide universal acknowledgement of their existence.

Lobi Snake

Lobi Snakes, 18th Century

The Lobi, ancient inhabitants of Ghana, originally crafted these iron snakes to ward off real snakes while farming in fields. So great was their cultural significance that they began to be used as currency when exchanging large amounts of wealth. Modern money relies on variations on a set theme tapping into cultural identity; the Lobi snakes are an example of monetising the value of a deeply engrained cultural emblem, one which has now shifted its status once again to become a sought-after object of art.

Wooden Bill

Wooden Bills (Notgeld), Germany, 1920s

Inflation during and after the First World War led to some small towns in Germany creating Notgeld – or ‘Emergency Money’ – from practically anything they could find. Coal, porcelain, foil, wood and even playing cards were all used alongside improvised paper notes. Rather than being state-sanctioned legal tender minted by a central bank, this money was a locally distributed and recognised means of payment that relied on the mutual agreement of a small community for use in exchanges.

Anticipating how rare this improvised currency would become, the hoarding of it by collectors effectively drove it out of circulation. Institutions even continued to issue vibrant and colourful sets of Notgeld after it was necessary, with colourful designs depicting local landmarks and folklore that fuelled this desperate currency’s appeal as a romanticised collector’s item.

Double Eagle

The Double Eagle, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1924

Originally minted in 1849 during the California Gold Rush, 90 per cent of the $20 Double Eagle coin was made from $20 worth of gold with the remaining 10 per cent from a copper alloy – literally worth its weight in gold. At the beginning of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt approached the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for a redesign, and he produced what many still consider to be the most beautiful design on any American coin. Saint-Gauden’s etching is highly evocative of a roaring, Art Deco age laden with American symbology and optimism: one that rather poetically melted in a furnace when the Great Depression forced owners to extract the pure gold from their coins.

Euro Note

The Euro, 1999

Designing a currency to represent 18 countries in the space of only a few notes and coins presented a unique challenge. Austrian designer Robert Kalina devised the look of the notes, which feature a universal design on both sides. Windows, arches and bridges are the overriding visual theme (a symbol of the links between the countries of the European Union), each one drawn in a different European architectural style. Prototypes showing country-specific landmarks like Pont Neuf were eventually homogenised to appear as generic bridges and arches; typical architectural monuments could be related to by all member countries and so, in theory, would please everyone.

Space Money

Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination (QUID), 2007

Amid the excitement surrounding Virgin Galactic’s 2009 maiden voyage – a trip that has been pushed back ever since – Travelex claimed that they were launching a new form of currency for use by the first space tourists. Part viral marketing campaign and part research project, the currency’s smooth edges would make the QUID safe to float around in zero gravity, and the polymers used contain no chemicals that could cause harm to space travellers. The currency’s design features eight planets orbiting the central ‘sun’, with each planet having a unique serial code for security. While the QUID’s childish appearance and backronym render it firmly tongue-in-cheek, it’s an interesting approach to a currency for the space-age, a concept that has previously been confined to science fiction.


Bitcoin, 2009

Although credit cards and the internet may have led to billions of transactions taking place involving no physical currency at all, they still operate within our established banking systems. Bitcoin’s selling point is that it entirely bypasses these: it is not controlled or owned by anyone and is completely virtual. For Bitcoin, design is no longer a matter of aesthetics but of countering the frustrations of modern currency with better speed, transparency and fraud protection. This is not proving to be easy, with Bitcoin currently experiencing great amounts of volatility and suspicion over use in illegal transactions.

A lack of understanding of the way in which Bitcoins are ‘mined’ (created by computers using the Bitcoin algorithm), strongly contributes to the currency’s slow acceptance. Modern money, for all its abstractions, has achieved a concrete presence that anyone can understand, and even Bitcoin’s publicity is often accompanied by renders of physical coins bearing the Bitcoin logo that suggest it relies on the very forms of currency it is separating itself from to be understood.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen £10 Note, 2013

Despite appearances from Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, British banknotes have typically lacked depictions of women. Caroline Criado-Perez launched her recently successful campaign to feature Jane Austen on the next £10 note when it was announced that Winston Churchill would replace Elizabeth Fry, meaning no newly issued banknotes would have featured women.

But this acknowledgement of money as a tool of social representation is far from cutting-edge. In Ancient Rome, anyone in the Emperor’s inner circle would appear on coins, from grandmothers to nieces and daughters – there was a clear recognition of the power in promoting a virtuous family.

New 1 pound

New One Pound Coin, 2014

The new £1 coin will supposedly be the most secure coin to date, employing the same level of protection used in banknotes. While the geometric design harks back to the 12-sided threepenny bit, the real focus is on the invisible changes – the product of over £2m of research into iSIS (Integrated Secure Identification Systems).

For all its varied forms and appearances, the Latin inscription on the edges of the first £1 coins (which will be lost in the update) neatly summarises modern currency design: Decus et Tutamen meaning ‘An ornament and a safeguard’. The inscription, being hard to forge, is both an elegant embelishment of the coin’s design and a promise of authenticity. From shells to snakes to the new £1 coin, currency design has throughout time used ornamentation to convey meaning, value and authenticity.

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