Michael E. Marotta submitted this review of the new edition of Bob Leonard's Curious Currency. Thanks! -Editor
Curious Currency: The Story of Money from the Stone Age to the Internet Age; 2nd Edition by Robert D. Leonard, Jr.; Whitman
Publishing, 2019; 153+vi pages; $16.95.
After an introductory overview, the chapter titles are Raw Materials, Useful Articles, Ornaments, Customary Objects, and Money Substitutes. Coins
fall under "raw materials" because they were valued as metal. But silver, gold, copper, bronze, and iron must take their place alongside obsidian and
flint which also were money. Coins also appear under "customary objects" along with elephant tails, woodpecker scalps, and human skulls.
Whiskey, tobacco, tea, cocaine, and postage stamps are considered "useful articles." Beads of coral, jade, glass, clam shells, cowry shells,
silver, and turquoise, arm rings, neck rings, anklets, and many kinds of necklaces are "ornaments," of course.
That almost anything can be used as money underscores the broad extent of society and culture. Therefore, it is cogent that the book closes with
examples of "nothing" as money. RFID transmissions, cellphones as proxies, and cybernetic cryptocurrencies bring the reader near to-but not at-the
end of the story of money.
Overall, Curious Currency is an excellent treatment of a complex and difficult subject. The book is easy to read and worth every
Make no mistake: this little book is very scholarly. An impressive 495 footnotes support the 126 octavo pages of text and about 250 illustrations
(some are composites). But we all have our passions and prejudices. And I was disappointed not to see an advance in the scholarship since the first
edition of 2010.
Denise Schmandt-Besserat's Before Writing (University of Texas Press, 1992) tied the origins of writing and the invention of numbers
greater than three to the creation of clay tokens in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East circa 7500 BCE. Though not traded as money or gifts, the
tokens served an economic purpose as records of debts. David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) completely
overturned our common imaginings about the origins of money. According to Graeber. trade did not originate with economic calculations of surplus.
Money did not originate with trade for profit. Money did not evolve from barter.
Those airy theories were shared by both Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises, which is why Robert Leonard accepted them uncritically. Graeber showed
that trade began as ritual gift exchange. Often it was the giving of a tangible to acknowledge an intangible based on social status. Graeber's
strongest evidence is negative: No example is known of a society that moved from barter to money, but many examples show that barter is what people
resort to when money fails. Robert Leonard's rich monograph supports those assertions. I am only sorry that he did not make them explicitly.
I believe that Chapter 1, "What is Money?" is contradictory both internally and as presented by the larger book. Leonard writes: "In simplest
terms money is 'anything used to make a payment that the recipient trusts can be reused to make another payment.' This includes items used as
money only for special purposes or situations, such as bride-price, funeral offerings, heiliges geld (offerings made to propitiate deities),
trading with Westerners, or usage only by native chiefs. Among those bride-price is payment made to the bride's parents as compensation for their
loss of her valuable work services." (Page 2)
Obviously, of the items listed, none is an example of any expectation of further exchange. Bride- price is a case in point. The material offering
only completed the social bonding of the families by the marriage. Calculating the labor of the bride eventually evolved thousands of years later and
only in some places and times, not universally. Of course, the complement of bride-price is dowry. If bride-price is meant to be the result of an
economic calculation that is carried out in money objects, what moneys are accepted as dowry; and, if the bride brings valuable labor, why is dowry
For a small book, Curious Currency delivers a lot to think about. We easily call it "coin collecting" even though numismatics is the art
and science that studies all of the forms and uses of money. This dense little book is about the forms that "money" (exchange objects, ritual gifts)
has taken over the thousands of years of human society. Of necessity, this is a broad topic, potentially encyclopedic in scope. Robert Leonard makes
the information load manageable by wrapping the stories and narratives into convenient chapters based on conceptual themes.
To read earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
NEW BOOK: CURIOUS CURRENCY, SECOND EDITION
BOOK REVIEW: CURIOUS CURRENCY
Wayne Homren, Editor
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