National Geographic : 1993 Jan
No smoking, no drinking, just make money are the rules inside the world's largest trading room in Tokyo. In a cavernous hall 350 employees of Sanyo Securities play the market, trying to cash in onJapan's export-driven economic boom. In 1991 the baburu keizai, or bubble econ omy, based on inflated real estate and stock prices, finally burst. Facing reduced bonuses, stressed-out traders on break fill their heads with soothing music. buried by a Greek commander getting ready to battle the Persians around 465 B.C. Included were 14 brilliant ten-drachma coins thought to have been struck by the Athenians to commemorate their victory over the Persians at Marathon. Most of those decadrachms are said to have wound up with a mil lionaire investor in Boston, with one piece going to a collector in Beverly Hills for $600,000. Illegally, according to the Turkish govern ment. Turkish law says you must turn in such finds to the local muse um; if they're valuable, you'll get a small reward. The earliest paper currency issued by a government appeared in China in the 11th century. In Persia the Mongol ruler Geikhatu decreed paper money in 1294, but merchants refused to accept it. They closed their shops and hid their goods. Trade stopped. Facing revolt, Geikhatu rescinded his edict; the official who had suggested it in the first place was torn to pieces in the bazaar. The first Euro pean bank notes were printed in Sweden in 1661, when coins were in short supply. But money hasn't always been metal or paper. One of the oldest forms may well be a shiny white or straw-colored mollusk shell, about an inch long, from the Indian Ocean-the cowrie; from it derives the Chinese character cai, standing for wealth, money. I remember a display of other forms brought to a coin collector's convention in Seattle by John Lenker, then head of the International Primitive Money Society. A bronze drum from Malaysia. A block of salt from Ethiopia. From Fiji a kava bowl with 11 legs. And wam pum, once prized by North American Indians-tiny clamshell pieces laboriously drilled and strung together like beads. "All these tell sto ries just as coins do," said Mr. Lenker. (See "Money From the Sea," pages 109-117.) THEHISTORIAN Fernand Braudel has pointed out that for most of recorded history the majority of people, living off the bounty of the land, hardly required money for day-to-day needs, and this was still true for many Americans early in this century when my father-in-law was young. He never forgot the exciting day, once a year after the harvest, when his grandfather hitched up the horses to drive a couple of miles to the little town of Greenfield, Illinois, with the wagon full of wheat. Fred Heck, the miller, would grind it into flour, keeping a bag for payment. Then to Samuel Wilhite's grocery, to leave flour for a year's supply of sugar and salt, canned goods and candy. Finally Fred Quast, the blacksmith, got flour for shoeing the horses and sharpening the plowshare. "Everybody knew the flour price," Dad told me, "it was in the paper every day." Payments could have been in those green dollar bills with yellow backs-gold certificates that could be redeemed any time for gold coins. But it wasn't necessary. Historian Braudel also delineated how in the Middle Ages the role of money, and hence trade and the entire economy of Europe, got a boost from Italian ingenuity. A new way was found to get around the ban of the church on usury, the lending of money at interest. Mer chants of Tuscany, especially from Siena and Florence, employed this new wrinkle at the fairs in the Champagne region of northeastern France in the 13th century. It was called the bill of exchange, and it opened the door to modern banking.