Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Author:Richard Fortey [Fortey, Richard]
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 978-0-307-57433-6
Publisher: Vintage Books
Published: 2004-03-25T16:00:00+00:00

The Dollar

Real Money: a 1922 U.S. silver dollar.

The most ordinary thing in the world, a scrap of paper: a buck, a greenback. The dollar: flimsy fuel for the world’s economy. Gross national products are reckoned in it; national debts are totted up in it; currencies fluctuate against it. When I visited Kazakhstan after its separation from the Soviet Union nobody was interested in pounds sterling, or French francs, or German marks, let alone the despised rouble. What people wanted was the mighty dollar. When anything was paid for, the dollars were scrutinized closely. Crumpled ones and dirty ones were unpopular: they were thrown back as if they were contaminated. No, what was acceptable was the pristine dollar bill, the essence of money. I had always been puzzled by the apparent uniformity of U.S. dollar notes, regardless of their denomination—fifty bucks looking so similar to a twenty, or a singleton, and apparently conspiring to aid confusion. Now I realized why this had to be: the dollar bill is money: it’s what money should look like. Everything else is just numbers.

Yet not long ago there was a silver dollar. When I travelled to the gambling state of Nevada in the late 1970s, these coins were still currency. They were a good size, like the largest coins in the sets of gold-clad chocolate money that kids still get for Christmas. Once I received a 1922 silver dollar in change in a small supermarket. Later, in New York, I saw the same coin on sale for twenty-seven dollars, thus making me one of the few people ever to leave Reno with a profit. The old dollar was more than an idealized form of money. The silver in it was, when minted, worth a dollar. Age didn’t turn silver dollars into tattered rags: they hung about for years. This kind of money had a durability that feels out of place in the age of the virtual transaction, when money as an entity becomes more and more notional. In the old days, money had substance. The dollars weighed down your pocket. The $ sign itself is considered by some to be a transmutation of “8” and related directly to the Spanish “pieces of eight.” Once upon a time their exchange values were linked. As for the name—dollar—it has a geological history.

One can find the same word in Danish, daler. In due turn, this is a variant of thaler. The thaler was the standard silver coinage across Europe in the sixteenth century. Each thaler weighed an ounce. There was a portrait of a bigwig struck on one side, often one of the counts of Slik who profited from their manufacture. At a time when there was much jiggery-pokery and adulterization in coinage, the thaler had a reputation for reliability. The reward of virtue in this case was eventually to bequeath its name to the ultimate lingua franca: the dollar that talks to just about everyone. Further, the name thaler was itself a contraction from Joachimsthaler, referring to the mine at Joachimsthal (the valley of Joachim) from which the silver was obtained.


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