Duly Noted: Fun Facts About Bank Notes and Currencies All Over the World

Notes Fun facts 1000.jpeg

You may think of the history of bank notes as a dry one – and that's not a surprise given the sober, serious nature of global currencies and international commerce.

Yet if you thought that bank notes lacked a colorful narrative, you'd be off base by a wide margin. The fact is, banks notes over the course of history have vibrant and interesting tales to tell, from Indian heroines to African schoolchildren front and center on national currencies.

What are the most unique ones? Here are five bank note facts that should be at the top of the list:

Here are five bank note facts that should be at the top of the list:

Paper Tigers 

China was actually the first country to issue paper-based currencies, dating back almost 15 centuries. The first paper bills were introduced during the Tang Dynasty, starting in 618 A.D. The Chinese used paper currencies as a form of exchange notes and bills of credit, and the practice continued pretty much unabated until the mid-1400's, when the Chinese government stopped printing paper bills. The reason? A familiar economic issue - rising inflation - devalued Chinese currencies to the point where the government decided to ban the production of paper bills. That was a currency policy China embraced for several hundred years before cranking the paper currency production line up again.

Picturing Pocahontas

Harriet Tubman, the heroine behind the underground railroad that led thousands of slaves to safety and freedom in the early 1800's, is set to appear on the U.S. $20 bill in 2020. Yet she wasn't the first woman to grace an American paper currency. That honor went to Pocahontas, whose visage appeared on the $20 bill during the 1860's. Martha Washington, the inaugural first lady in U.S. history, followed in the 1890's. As a side note, living individuals aren't allowed to appear on U.S. currencies, a mandate issued by Congress back in the 18th century.

One Laptop per Child

Merging non-profit initiatives with country currencies is a recent trend. Exhibit A is the 500 franc note issued by the National Bank of Rwanda in 2013, which touted the initiative One Laptop per Child. The unique bank note features a group of cows on the front of the bill and four neatly-dressed Rwanda schoolchildren on the back of the bill. One Laptop per Child is a worldwide charitable initiative designed to provide laptop devices to children in third-world countries, as a means of narrowing the educational divide between developed countries (like the U.S. and Canada) and developing countries (like Rwanda).

Subscribe to our
Weekly FX Newsletter

Vinyl vibes

Paper currencies have uses beyond the exchange of economic trade. For example, Michael Ridge, a sound artists from Norwich, U.K., found a novel use for the new English five-pound note in 2016. Ridge noticed the sharp, pointier corners of the bank, and used it as a record needle on a vinyl record. The resulting sound was surprisingly clear, and Ridge shared the currency concert with the world via a YouTube post that was seen by over 200,000 people.

The U.S. penny costs more than twice as much to produce than its actual value

Penny Ante 

The U.S. penny costs more than twice as much to produce than its actual value – 2.4 cents in manufacturing costs. Up the scale, the manufacturing costs for U.S. coins only increase, as a nickel costs 11.18 cents to make, compared to the U.S. dime coin which only costs 5.65 cents to manufacture. The costs have some currency advocates calling for the banning of pennies and nickels, primary for cost reasons. Uncle Sam wouldn't be the first country to deep six low-end value coins. In May, 2012, the Canadian government began phasing out its penny, as the Canadian Mint stopped producing them. Canada wasn't alone. Israel, Spain, France, and Britain have also banned their countries penny equivalents. In Canada's case, government estimates peg the savings in doing so at over $11 million annually.

Clearly, the history of global currencies and bank notes is a compelling and colorful one. That's worth noting as digital-based payments rise in stature—if not in historical lore and legend.