There are several interesting articles in the January 2017 issue of The Numismatist, the offical publication of the American Numismatic Association, including one by Grant Shobar on p30-31
highlight the National Equitable Labour Exchange notes of Robert Owen, one collecting interest of mine. Here's an excerpt. -Editor
Robert Owen perhaps is best known for his contributions to the theory of utopian socialism. He was one of the select few to see his plans for utopia come to fruition, if only for a short
Owen established communities at New Lanark in Scotland and then in New Harmony, Indiana, that offered free education for men and women and a free public library. Both were unprecedented practices
in the mid-19th century and were founded on the concept that human character is determined by environment, rather than genetics. Owen believed that by controlling circumstances and engineering
conditions that allow people to thrive, a true utopia could be achieved. This grand idea was moderately successful at New Lanark, gaining the support of utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. Unfortunately,
however, the community at New Harmony crumbled after only a few years.
Owen’s vision was not limited to his micro communities, and his ultimate goal was for all of Europe to understand and practice his ideals. He began in London, England, by establishing the National
Equitable Labour Exchange (NELE). The financial institution and its branches operated on a unique principle: pay with time, rather than money.
The NELE was based on a new interpretation of hourly wages. More specifi- cally, the Exchange paid for goods with a time-based currency. The longer an item took to make, the more “hours” it
While the NELE was open, currency of this intriguing monetary system was printed in very limited numbers. Values of bills ranged from one hour to as many as 80 hours.
The system initially was well received, and many local tradesmen and shops accepted these time-based notes as payment. Owen and his followers had built an economic system that was intended to
replace the national currency— and its initial success made it appear as if that would be the case!
However, after its introduction near the end of 1832, the Exchange had crashed and was all but forgotten in only two short years.
By that time, the system’s weaknesses had become apparent. Many questions arose: How should the length of time required to make goods be measured? How should the work be quantified? How
labor-intensive is it? At what rate should items be valued? No consensus could be reached. The Labour Exchange’s foundations began to fall apart, and it became clear that it was destined to fail. The
National Equitable Labour Exchange officially disbanded in 1834.
Although the notes were issued in many different denominations and used successfully for almost three years, they are only occasionally seen at auction today. It is unknown whether this is because
the bills reside in personal collections, were redeemed, or were lost or destroyed. Whatever the case, notes are quite rare and finding one is extremely difficult, regardless of condition.
See the next article in this issue for a look at labor exchange currency in Indiana. -Editor
For more information on the American Numismatic Association, see:
Wayne Homren, Editor
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