Where did money come from?
Jul 21, 2020
Season 1 | Episode 1

Where did money come from?

We’re going back to the beginning for our first episode. Benny from Irvine, California, wants to know: Who invented money and when?

For our very first episode, we’re traveling back thousands of years to learn about all the ways people got what they needed from each other before money was invented: bartering with whatever they had, making pacts with close friends and eventually inventing coins and other forms of money! Plus we’ll ask some random kids not-so-random questions, and Kristen Bell designs her own money.

A four-panel comic. The first says "Where did money come from?" The second shows a fish bone necklace, reading: "If you lived in the ancient hunter-gatherer groups of Papua New Guinea, you might give someone a fishbone necklace." The third panel shows two hands shaking, it says: "This acted as a kind of currency, meaning that person could rely on you if they ever needed a favor." The fourth panel shows two people high-fiving and reads: "Now we call them best friend bracelets."

Now some tips for grown-ups listening to “Million Bazillion” with kids

Money Talks

It turns out that ancient people had lots of ways to get the things they needed, and they often relied on personal relationships. When we started using money (like coins and objects), people who didn’t know each other personally could exchange goods and services. Over time, to some people, the currency itself became important — even though it’s really only a representation of things we value. 

Take a minute to recap the episode and review the key points. Here are some questions to get the kids going:

  1. Can you explain what bartering is? Can you think of an example of bartering?
  2. Do you remember what object professor Bill Maurer showed Jed and Bridget? Why was it important in the history of money? 
  3. We learned about King Alyattes in ancient Mesopotamia. What was so special about him? 

(Jump down to the answers)

Tip Jar

We talked a lot in this episode about ancient forms of money, but what about the money you see and use today? In the United States, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (aka the Money Factory) makes our paper money, and the U.S. Mint makes the coins we use. 

Check out this video featuring a guy with a really cool job: bank note designer. And here are some cool facts about pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.

Gimme Five

As we talked about on this episode, a lot of interesting things can be used as money, like seashells, beads, cocoa beans and — at least if Jed had his way — turtles!

Our final question this week is this: If you had to design your own currency, what would you use? Remember, it should be small and light, so it’s easy to carry. It should be tough so it doesn’t call apart. And it should be something that’s hard to get. We already got one great suggestion from Kristen Bell: She said her currency would have Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on it and would take the shape of one of her collars.

Send us your suggestions and pictures here, and we’ll feature some of our favorites on the website.

Chances are you or your kids still have more questions. That’s great! We’re always looking for more ideas to explore, so we’d love to hear from you. Click here to send us your question.

Money Talks answers

  1. Answers will vary.
  2. A necklace made of fish bones and shells that were gifted among friends and family, and served as a reminder that they could call on each other for help — sort of an early form of currency.
  3. He was the king of metal! Alyattes is the answer to Benny from Irvine, California’s question,“Who invented money?” Alyattes took bits of metal and stamped them with an image, creating the first form of coins.

(Jump back to the top)

Correction: (July 22, 2020): An earlier version of artwork accompanying this podcast misspelled Papua New Guinea.

“Million Bazillion” episode 1, season 1, “Who invented money?” transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Jed: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the first-ever episode of Million Bazillion, where we help dollars make more sense…. For kids… and the adults in their lives. I’m Jed.

Bridget: And I’m Bridget. Together, we’re all going to figure out how this thing…MONEY…really works…because, yeah, it can get kinda confusing, kinda awkward, kinda scary…but don’t worry, we’re going to have fun.

Jed: And kids… you’re in charge. Because we’re answering YOUR questions. You can send them to us at our website, marketplace-dot-org-slash-million.

Bridget: Speaking of questions — we’re going to answer this one today.

Jed: <super confident he’s right> When we flip a coin, why do we call it heads or tails? There are no tails! Unless, you know, we never see the presidents’ bodies. Did they have tails?!!

Bridget: No, Jed. We’re not answering your questions. We’re answering Benny’s question.

Jed: Oh – right! Benny from Irvine California. His question is much better for the first episode. Check it out.

Benny: I would like to know, who invented money and when?

Jed: Such a great question! Because money didn’t always exist! So…how did that even work?? How did people back then get stuff they wanted?

Bridget: Coming up next, we’re going back thousands of years to find out the answer.

Jed: Money is this super useful thing. Sure, it’s just a chunk of metal or some paper. But we’ve all agreed that this metal or paper is special. It’s worth something. So if I need a thing you have — I just give you some of my magic paper — and ta da! <ta da reveal sound> You’ll give me that thing!

Bridget: It’s simple. It’s quick. It’s easy.

Jed: But it hasn’t always been around. Before they came up with the idea for money, our ancestors tried a lot of different ways to get what they needed. Like bartering.

Bridget: You mean trading? I do that all the time. Like yesterday I traded our pal Ben the last of my halloween candy for this pen.

Jed: A pen? For sweets?! Big mist–

Bridget: It was candy corn.

Jed: So bartering is one way to get what you want without using money. You can trade items and services — like fixing someone’s wagon in exchange for food. That may sound simple but things can get pretty complicated — pretty fast.

Bridget: How so?

Jed: Well – let me show you. Come with me to one of the world’s most famous trading floors.

Bridget: Ohhh – are we going to Wall Street? Exciting!

Jed: What? Those amateurs? No way! I’m talking the best barterers in the world. 5th graders. 

Bridget: <flat> This is a cafeteria.

Jed: Exactly. And the bartering is fierce.

Kid 1: I’ve got a PB&J, PB&J! Trade for a chocolate milk?

Kid 2: Who wants my gummy bears? Open to any and all offers.

Kid 3: Okay – I’ll swap you this apple — for that hummus. But you gotta throw in the carrot sticks.

Kid 2: Seriously, anyone want my gummy bears? I only licked them a little.

Jed: Bridget — I want to introduce you to a straight up bartering genius – there she is. Hi Piper!

Piper: Hey Jed. You here for pizza Friday again?

Jed: It’s pizza Friday?! Man, I would love a slice of sweet cafeteria ‘zah — but no. Not now. I actually came to hear about… the trade. <dramatic sting>

Piper: Oh. The trade! <dramatic sting again>

Bridget: What’s the trade? <sting a third time> And where’s that sound coming from?

Jed: The trade was just the most epic lunchroom barter of all time.

Piper: It all started with a pack of raisins — and a dream. You see, I forgot my lunch at home but I had one of those small boxes of raisins in my backpack. My goal: get a turkey sandwich with the works.

Bridget: Who would trade a sandwich for raisins?

Piper: No one! That’s why I had to barter up. I started by trading my raisins with Freddie – he’s nuts about dried fruit. He gave me two juice boxes. I swapped the pair of boxes for a single pear — you know the fruit. Which I exchanged for chips and salsa. Swapped those for a slice of bundt cake — which I traded for a slice of pizza — which Devon Landers traded me for — a turkey sandwich with the works! Bada bing. Bada boom. That’s… the trade.

Jed: Amazing.

Bridget: Yeah. But I see what you mean — bartering can get complicated.

Jed: Right?! It would be so useful if you had a third thing that both of you agreed was important that you could trade instead.

Bridget: Like money?

Jed: Exactly.

Kid 2: Hey Piper — please can I have some of your pizza today? Nobody wants my gummy bears so I have nothing to trade for a sweet slice of zah!

Piper: First off – stop calling it zah. Only old people trying to be cool say that.

Jed: Yeah. Wait. I call it zah!

Piper: And second — I only have one slice!

Kid 2: Yeah, but… Steph — aren’t we besties?! I mean – you did make me this sweet bracelet in summer camp… and it does say BFF. So… eh?

Piper: Ugh. You’re right. Bracelet is bond. Here – you can have this part with the weird crust bubble.

Kid 2: Yes! Crust bubbles rule! Here, you can have my gummy bears if you want. I dropped them in the sandbox earlier but they’re clean-ish.

Piper: Hard pass.

Jed: Whoa – not how I expected that to play out.

Bridget: Actually – that reminds me of something. Come on – my turn to show you something.

So yeah. Bartering has limits. But Jed, there are other ways people used to get things before they invented coins and paper money. Like jewelry made of BONES!

Jed: Unexpected twist! TELL ME EVERYTHING!

Bridget: Meet Bill Maurer…and his fish bone necklace:

Bill Maurer: This is a object from Papua New Guinea made of big shell suspended on a rope with lots of little tiny shells and little wooden little wooden trinkets and I think this is like a fish vertebra. 

Bridget: Bill researches money and how we use it.

Jed: You could say Bill really knows bills.

Bridget: (groans at the weight of Jed’s awful dad joke) Okay so, Bill has this theory for how money began…keep that fish bone necklace in the back of your mind. Basically, long ago, before we had paper money and coins and credit cards, people lived in small groups…and they had a sort of problem.

Bill Maurer: they needed ways of keeping track of who did what for whom, who owed what to whom, and what their obligations were to one another.

Bridget: Like say you needed an extra person for a hunting trip. And in the past, you’ve helped out your neighbor…they kind of owe you one right? But how do you make that clear?

Jed: You know, Bridget, I’m gonna be real disappointed if the answer doesn’t involve fish bone bling.

Bridget: Oh it totally does. Bill says, if you lived back then, you might give family, friends and neighbors those fishbone necklaces. The necklaces were sort of a symbol that you would be there if they needed you.

Jed: Huh. Okay…I mean, I guess I see how that works…(sounding skeptical/unsure)

Bridget: So, it’s like that kid in the cafeteria with the Best Friend Forever bracelet from camp! The one with that disgusting bag of gummy bears?

Jed: Ughhh. I’m pretty sure there was a rolly polly in there.

Bridget: Right. Best Friends give each other these bracelets and every time you see it, it’s a reminder of your friendship, past, present, and future. You’ve got each other’s backs.

Jed: So these ancient people Bill was talking about — they’d just be giving out like, bony BFF necklaces…OH, BEST FISH FOREVER!!

Bridget: Yep. Exactly. And in ancient times, if you needed help and one of your BFFs said no?

Bill Maurer: You could be, “Well, but wait,” and you could pull out these giant shell things or things made of feathers or whatever and say, Hey – come on. Everybody would then see it. Everybody would then shame me, and I’d be like, “Okay, I guess I’ll go help you do whatever it is you want me to do.”

Bridget: In communities where things like these necklaces were used, you would have very strong ties with people around you. And you didn’t really need money like we have today to get what you needed. Tokens like these were enough.

Jed: It’s so sweet. So pure!

Bridget: Yeah. But, this works best for small, close knit groups. How do you get stuff from a stranger?

Jed: Coming up after the break, we’re going to talk about how money started looking like the stuff we know and love today. Like really love. I mean, sometimes I take selfies with some of my favorite quarters…

Bridget: Jed, focus!

Jed: Right. We’ll be back — but first, here’s a question for you to ponder.

All-knowing voice: Today’s question — Would you rather… Only be paid in pennies…OR… Only be able to use bartering to get what you want?

Which would you pick? That’d be a ton of pennies to have to carry around. You’d need a wheelbarrow. But bartering for a new bike — or a house? That sounds hard. <beat> So which would you rather?

Jed: Welcome back to Million Bazillion! We’ve been talking about how the world worked before money came around. And we’ve learned that when you don’t have money, it’s possible to get things by trading for them or by relying on your friends and neighbors — your BFFS.

Bridget: But what if someone you didn’t know wanted to hire you to do some work? How could you be sure that they wouldn’t refuse to pay out when the time came?

Jed: Some civilizations developed ways to keep track of who owed what to whom. In Ancient Mesopotamia (MUSIC) they wrote out the details of deals on clay tablets and stored them in secure places. Having these recorded tablets made it safer to do business with a stranger, because you could always go check the record.

Nuratum: Hey – record keeper — how much grain does Udish owe me again?

Scribe: Ok, it says Udish will pay Nuratum 15 bushels of grain in exchange for digging a well.

Udish (male): <sheepishly> Oh, oops, I could’ve sworn we said 12 bushels.

Nuratum (female): Yeah, yeah, the clay doesn’t lie, man. Hand over the grain.

Jed: But even this records system had its problems. For one thing, it wasn’t very fast. Also, what if you lived far from where the records were stored? Or you wanted to move? Well, someone came along who solved these problems and made money look a lot like what we know today. This guy was basically a rockstar!

Narrator: He ruled hundreds of years ago, but his impact is still felt today. On this episode of Behind the Money, the story of Alyattes, the King of Metal.

Alyattes: I’ve always really loved metal. Can’t get enough of it. It’s just got this great sound.

Narrator: King Alyattes ruled the kingdom of Lydia around 600 BC. His rule was marked by periods of war, which may have fed his love of metal.

Alyattes: Yeah, there was metal in swords and shields and like, and that was cool. But after a while, that stuff got pretty boring really. I figgered I could push the boundaries, you know? Really make my mark on metal.

Narrator: And that’s exactly what he did. The king began taking bits of metal and hitting them with a stamped image. And with that, the coin was born.

Alyattes: We started payin’ our soldiers wiff it and telling people, “You better accept these coins as payment, or else.” And what are they gonna do? I’m the king, ‘ent I? (LAUGHING)

Narrator: Alyattes’ idea worked. Demand for coins spread.

Villager: I lived in that kingdom and I have to say — coins were brilliant! They made buying and selling so easy! Before it, you had to keep records of every transaction. But with the coin, well, you could just hand that to someone and then go your separate ways. The coin was its own record!

Narrator: Record after record, hit after hit. Eventually, the entire world would use coins to trade. And Alyattes, he sealed his legend as the king of metal.

Jed: And that is the answer to our question of the day! Sent to us by Benny, from Irvine, California..who invented money and when. In fact, the idea was such a hit it pretty much replaced all those other ways of getting things we talked about earlier.

Bridget: And we want to answer YOUR questions! If you’ve got questions you want answered…send them to us at our website, marketplace dot org slash million.

Bridget: Coins are a great form of currency, which is another word for money. But did you know that lots of interesting things have been used as currency? Different civilizations have traded using seashells, beads, salt — the ancient Mayans used cocoa beans…which you know from chocolate.

Jed (off-mic): Oh man, I would TOTALLY eat all my money.

Bridget: Yeah, I know, right? Well, if you had to design your own currency, what would you use? Silk buttons? Paper that’s covered in holographic images? Here are some things experts say make for good currency: 1) It should be small and light, so that it’s easy to carry. 2) It should be tough, so it doesn’t fall apart too soon. 3) And this is important — it should be something that’s hard to get.

Jed: Yeah, no one would accept grains of sand, because they could just grab up handfuls of their own at the beach.

Bridget: Yeah, then we’d all be bazillionaires. Tell us what you come up with and why. Send us your suggestions or pictures at marketplace.org/million. We’ll pick some of our favorites and feature them on our site! And actually, we already have one submission.

Kristen Bell: I’m Kristen Bell, answering a question for Million Bazillion for Marketplace. If I could design my own currency, I would put Ruth Bader Ginsberg on it and it would be a bill in the shape of her dissent collar. It wouldn’t fit well into a wallet but it would be VERY valuable.

Bridget: I mean, that’s a pretty cool idea from someone who was both Anna in Frozen AND Eleanor in the Good Place!

Jed: I know what I’d choose for currency: tortoises!

Bridget: What?

Jed: Yeah, they’re tough and last for like a hundred years! They’re more useful than dollar bills, because they can be pets. Plus, as they grow, your money would grow.

Bridget: I’m not sure that’s how it works.

Jed: We’d write on them, “In tortoise we trust”! And we’d put magnetic stripes on them so we could stick them up on our refrigerators… (continuing off mic)

Bridget: Let’s meet our Dollar Scholar for the week.

Every week we hear from a kid who’s gotten better at understanding money and how we use it…and they’ve got some tips they want to share with the rest of us.

Jed: Today’s Dollar Scholar of the week is Maile, from Colorado. She found an old sewing machine in her basement when she was 11, learned how to use it…and now has her own business.

Maile: I started with one type of bag, it was my cosmetic bag. It has so many purposes which is why I think everyone loves it. And then I also have producer bags, which I posted about them last year and I got 250 orders for them.

Jed: Wow, okay. I wanna ask, so you started sewing, you started learning how to do this, how did that turn into business.

Maile: Um, so I started sewing for myself, but then friends and families kept complimenting me and asking if I would make all these different bags for them.

Jed: What are you doing with the money you’re making? Are you saving it up for something specific?

Maile: So I put part of that money into reinvesting into my business, so if I need to buy new fabrics or different handles, I can do that. And then I’ve also been saving up for my student theater trips. Theater is my other passion, and I figured out I can put my two passions togeether. So I can use sewing and theater and I can help out with costume design. I’ve done that with a couple different performances in my neighborhood.

Jed: So i have to ask what tips do you have for other kids who want to start their own business?

Maile: Don’t be afraid to try and to fail. Most of my bags are the fourth or fifth prototype of their kind. So you just have to go for it. Also take a look around and see if your business can help others. Once this pandemic started I realized there was a need for masks and surgical caps so I put my business on hold and I was able to help by making these masks and surgical caps and donating them to nurses and doctors in need.

Jed: That was an amazing story from Maile from Colorado, turning her skills into a way to make a little money and help people too.

Bridget: If you want to nominate yourself or someone you know as a Dollar Scholar, hop on over to our website, marketplace dot org slash million.

Jed: Hold on everybody. I feel some big thoughts coming on. Can I get some inspirational guitar please?

Perfect. So today we learned ancient people had lots of ways to get the things they needed — and a lot of times they relied on relationships. Money took over, but it’s not a perfect solution. Taking relationships out of money made spending easier, but it also made it really easy to focus on money itself as what’s most important.

But who knows? Money keeps changing. Maybe someday, you’ll figure out a way to make helping each other out an important part of how we spend again. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

But nobody take the tortoise idea! That one’s mine!de

Bridget: Thanks for staying with us to the end, guys. This has been Million Bazillion — where we help dollars make more sense…

Jed: Our next episode is going to be all about asking your parents to buy you something and then actually getting them to do it.

Bridget: If you like what you heard, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts…and leave us a rating or write us a review on Apple Podcasts…That REALLY helps cool people like you find us! And that would be SO HELPFUL!

Jed: And we’ve said it before but I’ll say it again…we’ve got a website…marketplace dot org slash million…you can send us your questions there…and we’ve also got tip sheets for you and your family…and they are AWESOME.

Bridget: Special thanks to Bill Maurer, whose very official title is professor of anthropology and law, and Dean of Social Sciences at UC Irvine.

In this episode, huge thanks to the following people, who lent us their voices: Jack Stewart, Robyn Edgar, Andy Walker, Piper Hirsch, Elyssa Dudley, Marc Sanchez, Coco Sanchez, Soren, and Eva.

Jed: Also, huge thanks to so many people at Marketplace and Brains On! Who helped us every step of the way in making this show actually happen.

Million Bazillion is brought to you by Marketplace in collaboration with Brains On! And American Public Media. Ben Tolliday makes us sound great, including writing most of our music. Our theme music was created by Wonderly. Bridget Bodnar is my co-host and the senior producer. Sanden Totten is our Editor. Sitara Nieves is the Executive Director of On Demand. Marketplace’s Senior Vice President and General Manager is Deborah Clark. I’m your host, Jed Kim.

Bridget: And special thanks to the people who provided the startup funding to make this show possible in the first place.The Ranzetta Family Charitable Fund and Next Gen Personal Finance, supporting Marketplace’s work to make younger audiences smarter about the economy.

Jed: See you next time.


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