A brief history of money – from salt to smartphones

From cattle to coins, commerce has been a part of everyday human existence for thousands of years, and during the last decade it has transformed beyond all recognition. Now, you can buy your lunch by touching your debit card against a tiny reader, pay for your metro ticket with your watch and send money around the world from your smartphone: Azimo’s brilliant app lets you send money to more than 190 countries and this week we launched the world’s first Facebook Messenger bot for money transfer.

Of course, all this technology is a very long way from swapping a sack of flour for a chicken or being paid your wages in tobacco, but the basic bartering principle remains the same – and probably always will.

10000 BC: Grain and cattle

It didn’t take early humans long to figure out the bartering system – swap surplus stuff with their neighbours. Not quite Sainsbury’s, but you could maybe exchange a sack of flour for a chicken, or even a cow for a table. Of course, this soon got complicated: bartering required finding someone who had exactly what you wanted and wanted what you had in exchange, a ‘coincidence of wants’. It was never going to last…

3000 BC: First banks

You’d be forgiven for thinking that high-street banks seem a bit outdated in the age of smartphones and smartwatches, but to be fair they’ve been around for a while… a long while: very primitive forms of banking began at temples and palaces in the Mesopotamian region around 5,000 years ago.

1200 BC: Seashells and salt

The earliest form of hard currency was a seashell called a ‘cowrie’, which originated in China and spread across the globe as a form of payment. In fact, ‘shell money’ was still in use in the late 19th century in some parts of Africa and the South Pacific.

Ancient Roman scriptures also describe sal (salt) being used as a payment method for soldiers, and this is how the word ‘salary’ came into common use. But it wasn’t just soldiers being paid in salt – the spice was allegedly used by Romans and Greeks to buy slaves, and by Moorish merchants in the sixth century to barter for gold.

630 BC: Coins

The first coins were minted in Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor that now forms part of modern-day Turkey. They were made from a mixture of gold and silver called electrum. They wouldn’t have fitted in a vending machine, though – the coins were valued by weight not shape. Coins quickly made it to mainland Greece and, a few hundred years later, the Romans were flashing the cash throughout their empire as well.

1000 AD: Notes

The Chinese were the first to develop paper money, following a global shortage of metals needed to produce coins. After setting this very important antecedent, China abandoned paper money around 1455, due to inflation. Sweden was the first country in Europe to print money, during the 1660s, and the rest of the continent quickly followed their lead.

1619: Tobacco

Salt was the chosen tender in Roman times, but fast forward to 17th-century America and tobacco was the new commodity money. The brown stuff was legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas for a while before burning itself out.

1946: Credit cards

The first bank card was introduced in the USA in 1946. Four years later saw the launch of the Diners Club card, the first independent card accepted by multiple merchants, and the credit boom was born.

1990s: Online shopping

Whether you’re buying DVDs or dinner, online shopping is second nature these days and surfing from your sofa is the new retail therapy. So it’s amazing to think that Amazon and eBay are barely out of their teens. Next time you add a shedload of bargains to your shopping cart, spare a thought for those Roman soldiers trying to spend their salt.

2008: Contactless

Contactless may have only hit the retail scene a few years ago, but most of us have grown so used to simply tapping when it comes to paying at the tills that the prospect of having to type your pin in when you’re picking up a sandwich is a 21st-century pain in the arse.

2009: Bitcoins

Bitcoins came, saw and briefly innovated as the next big thing when they emerged from the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis, but the cryptocurrency has yet to live up to the hype – most people have heard of it, but few understand how the virtual money works. And even fewer have a clue who invented it – except that it was a person or group going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

2010: Mobile money

If the 1990s were all about the internet, the 21st century is all about the smartphone. This is the era of apps, mobile wallets and mobile top-ups. Azimo launched in 2012 to bring fast, safe, low-cost transfers to as many people as possible, and customers are now able to send money around the globe via our website or app with just a few simple clicks. Sure beats queueing up at the forum for a bag of salt.

Ready to join the Azimo revolution? Head over to our homepage, check out our brilliant rates and start saving today!