Paper Currency of the World

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The first true paper money was produced by the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) of China in 1189. However, it was not used in the West until 1661, when the Stockholm Banco issued credit notes in an attempt to back the value of Swedish plate money (see Case 7) Letters of credit had been used previously by medieval bankers, but fully transferable bank notes were a new innovation.

Bank notes were viewed as a medium for transferring money, rather than as money in their own right. Individuals could take their paper notes to the bank to redeem them for gold and silver coins with intrinsic value. Paper money was only good so long as people had confidence that the banks would cash it on demand. Otherwise, masses of people would attempt to redeem their paper money at once, thereby rendering it worthless and ruining banks. The temptation to print more money than could be covered by precious metal reserves was also a frequent hazard.

By 1971, every country had given up the gold standard, thereby ending the possibility of converting paper currency into precious metal. This change created a “floating currency” system in which the value of paper money (and the fiduciary coinage that circulates with it) is dictated entirely by public confidence and international market forces.

By the 20th century, although coin design had become more conservative than in the past, paper money had blossomed into a new canvas for creative artistic expression at the hands of skilled engravers.


East Asia and the Origins of Paper Money

From the 11th century to the present day, China and other East Asian countries have used a wide variety a wide variety of paper money—representing a host of different governments, individuals and banks—for transactions. The images on more modern issues often reflect idealized rural life.

Imperial Chinese string “Great Ming Circulating Treasure Certificate” (1368) worth 1000 cash coins, printed on mulberry paper during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The value, 1 string of cash, is illustrated by a picture in the center of the note.


Communist Chinese yuan note (1960) showing a smiling woman operating a tractor on a farming collective.


British Hong Kong 10 dollar note (1931) issued by The Chartered Bank of India, Australia & China, showing the bust of a helmeted warrior.


Reunion 5000 franc note (1962) showing a group of adults and children picnicking and collecting fruit.



East and Southeast Asia

Just like metallic coinage, paper money can be used not only to express an economic value, but also to advertise political and social values. The larger size and the use of vibrant color on notes can often make them a better medium than coinage for such advertisements.

Communist Chinese 3 string note (1933) from the Szechuan-Shensi Province Workers’ and Farmers’ Bank. This unusual note, produced for one of the earliest farming collectives in Maoist China, is printed on cotton cloth rather than traditional paper. The raised fist and star emblem reflects the militant spirit during the civil war (1927-1936) between Chinese communist and nationalist forces.


Nationalist Chinese 100 customs gold units note (1930) with a portrait of Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), issued by the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975).


Japanese hansatsu note (1731) worth 1 momme of silver. These notes were produced by cities, merchants, and important clans during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867).


Philippine 5 peso silver certificate (1903) with a portrait of U.S. President William McKinley (1897-1901). The presidential portrait appears here because the Philippines were an American protectorate from 1898 to 1946.


Laos 100 kip note (1957) showing a woman with a bowl of roses and a temple in the background.



Early Western Paper Money

The earliest western paper money was in a simple design, reflecting its origin in letters of credit. Gradually, single images were introduced on the notes and, by the end of the 18th century, an artistic revolution had begun that paved the way for the beautiful and extremely intricate engraved designs of the 19th and 20th century.

Denmark rigsdaler note (1804) from Copenhagen, with a triangular design.


French assignat worth 400 livres (1792), depicting an eagle and a sunburst in front of the cap of liberty.


U.S. 2 dollar note (1777) issued by the state of Georgia, depicting a ship.


U.S. 2 dollar Continental currency note (1776) showing grain-threshing with a flail.


Dollar note (1841) issued by the Bank of Texas, showing a Native American and a woman sitting on hay in a cow pasture.


Canadian 2 dollar note (1859) issued by the Planters’ Bank, Kingston, with three scenes: a warrior figure holding a trident on a beach, farmers plowing with oxen, and a woman with a cornucopia and a ship in the background. Notes such as this, produced by private chartered banks, often depicted idyllic scenes of the country and its people.



American Paper Money

Elaborate engravings, called vignettes, and color, were originally used as measures against counterfeiting. As the 19th century progressed, the variety and intricacy of vignette subjects exploded-with the most elaborate designs created at the end of the century. The great variety of U.S. paper money designs disappeared after U.S. Government paper currency was introduced in 1861. In 1913, the Federal Reserve centralized U.S. banking and the production of money.

2 dollar note (1862) with a portrait of Alexander Hamilton.


Confederate States of America 20 dollar note (1864) depicting the Tennessee state capitol at Nashville and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (1861-1865).


Fractional currency 10 cent note (1863) depicting Liberty.


Fractional currency 5 cents note (1863) with the portrait of S.M.Clark, Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau.


Fractional currency 25 cent note (1874) with a portrait of former Secretary of Treasury Robert J. Walker.


“Educational Series” dollar silver certificate (1896). From the “Educational Series” by the American Banknote Company, with an allegorical vignette representing History instructing Youth. Although considered the most beautiful examples of Federal paper money, this series was short-lived due to fears that the design could be easily counterfeited photographically.


2 dollar silver certificate (1896) from the “Educational Series” with an allegorical scene of Science presenting Stream and Electricity (three women) to Industry and Commerce (two youths).


5 dollar silver certificate (1896) from the “Educational Series” depicting four allegorical figures to illustrate Electricity (holding the lightbulb) as a dominant force in the world.



Private Design and Printing

Notes are designed and printed by private companies that often work on behalf of many governments or banks. The vignettes on the notes were sometimes engraved by copying from paintings or photographs that had little connection to the country. However, many notes utilized designs depicting buildings, people or export goods for which the nation was famous.

Peruvian 1000 peso proof issued by the American Banknote Company (no date) showing, in the center, a Native and a sailor at the shore.


Colonial Cuban 100 peso note (1891) showing a young shepherd and a girl sitting opposite each other and pointing to the legend.


Colombian 50 centavo proof (1883) from Bolivar with a portrait of three young girls.


Mexican 500 peso proof (c. 1890-1892) from Yucatan with two illustrations: a young woman sitting on an anchor watching a ship, and a dog. The illustration of the dog is a reproduction of the painting Head of a Deerhound by British artist Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873).


Palestinian 1 pound note (1929) issued by the Palestine Currency Board, showing the Dome of the Rock.


Israeli 5 lirot note (1968) with a portrait of Albert Einstein.



Political and National Identity

Just like coinage, paper money can be used by governments to project a particular image or convey political messages. The note from Pre-Revolution Russia has a serious, monochromatic portrait of Catherine the Great, who had ruled a century earlier. However, the Red Army note uses more colors, a wildly intricate background design, and a multilingual political slogan. Modern notes from Uzbekistan and Greece look back to ancient and medieval glories for subject matter, while the Romanian note has a futuristic design.

Imperial Russian 100 ruble state credit note (1898) with a portrait of Catherine II.


Communist Russian 5000 ruble note (1919) issued by the Red Army, with the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” in French, Italian, German, English, Arabic and Chinese.


Uzbekistan 200 sum note (1997) with the traditional Turkic emblem of a tiger with the sun setting over its back.


Romanian 2000 lei note (1999) with an abstract diagram and chart of the total solar eclipse that took place in the year of issue. This note is especially interesting because it is made from polymer plastic rather than traditional paper.


Greek 1000 drachma note (1987) showing a statue of Apollo from Olympia.



Rural Life On European Notes

A common theme of many vignettes on European notes of the 20th century was the glorification of the hard-working rural farmer and his family, often proclaimed as the foundation of national strength. The “salt of the earth” farmer and the bucolic lifestyle in close contact with nature continue to be powerful symbols, and are used on banknotes issued to this day.

Austrian 50 krone note (1914) stamped Velika Gorica in 1918-1919 for use in Croatian territory formerly ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Emperors.


German 20 mark note (1915) showing a man rolling up his sleeves by sunlight and a woman resting by moonlight.


Austrian 5000 krone note (1922) with a portrait of a woman.


Denmark 500 krone specimen note (1939) showing a farmer plowing with a horse. Exquisite floral engravings surrounded the scene.


Swiss 100 franc note (1965) showing a boy feeding a flower to a lamb.


Netherlands 250 gulden note (1985) showing a lighthouse in vertical format.



Africa, India and Australia

Africa developed its own local forms of currency (see Case 10). However, contact with colonizing Europeans led to the introduction of coinage and paper money. These European forms of money were kept after African states achieved independence, but with distinctively native subject matter. Similarly, for Australia and New Zealand, which have large populations of European and Aboriginal inhabitants, vignettes depict Natives and precontact artifacts.

Liberian 5 cent note (1837) issued by the Maryland State Colonization Society. In 1822, the American Colonization Society established Liberia as a new home for freed American slaves returning to Africa. Liberia became a republic in 1848.


Belgian Congo 500 franc note (1943) with a portrait of a Native woman.


Ghana 5 cedi note (1977) showing a smiling woman wearing a large hat.


Mali 1000 franc note (1971-1973) showing a man in traditional clothing in front of a building.


Indian 10 rupee note (1997) with a portrait of M.K. “Mahatma” Gandhi.


Australian 10 dollar note (1988) showing an Aboriginal youth, a rock painting and a ceremonial “Morning Star” pole.


New Zealand 10 shilling note showing a kiwi bird and a Maori king.



German Interwar Emergency Money

The economic disaster that struck Germany after World War I can be clearly seen in the paper money issued in the 1920s. Inflation skyrocketed and paper money devalued rapidly. In this period, two types of inflationary notes were printed: Reichsbank notes issued by the central bank in Berlin, and notgeld (“emergency money”) issued by city banks, towns and other entities. Inflation also caused the overprinting of new, astronomically high denominations (worth almost nothing) on lower-value notes.

Reichsbank 1000 mark note (December 15, 1922) with the bust of a bearded man overprinted as 1,000,000,000 marks (September 1923).


Reichsbank 1,000,000 marks (February 20, 1923) from Cologne, with Gothic-style typeface and design.


100,000,000 mark notgeld (September 10, 1923) from Cologne, with Gothic-style typeface and design.


50,000 mark notgeld (July 3, 1923) from Moenchen-Gladbach, showing Hermes, the ancient god of commerce, and industrial chimneys in an Art-Deco style.


50 pfennig notgeld issued by the famous steel factory of Krupp.


5 mark notgeld from Frankfurt-am-Main.


2 mark notgeld illustrating a popular German nursery rhyme about a local doctor.



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