Inside The History of Money

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

For something that is as ubiquitous and critical to everyday life as money, how much do you know about its history? How much do your children know — aside from the fact that you have that incredible money tree hidden in the backyard? If you’d like to take a little learning journey with your children, Martin Jenkins’s The History of Money: From Bartering to Banking (Candlewick Press) is a fantastic place to start — interesting, fun, and highly educational. We had an opportunity to talk to Jenkins who, in addition to his role as an award-winning author of wildlife and other nonfiction books for children, is also a conservation biologist who has worked for WWF and the UN.

How does a conservation biologist get interested in writing The History of Money?

They’re not as far apart as you might think. A lot of modern conservation work is trying to find ways of paying for conservation or making conservation pay for itself. I’ve done this kind of thing myself, in Madagascar for example, looking at whether there might be incentives to encourage local people to conserve rainforest rather than cut it down. So over the years I’ve become familiar with (although often skeptical of) economics as a way of looking at the world. And economics is almost always couched in terms of money. It was only when I started working on the book that I began to appreciate how little I really knew about money and its history, although I quickly realized that this wasn’t just true of me, but of almost everyone else, including a lot of economists.

What surprised you most when researching the book?

The research for the book was full of surprises. For me, one of the most fascinating things was that it really does seem as if we have the invention of money to thank for the invention of writing. I’d always imagined that writing grew out of an oral tradition of storytelling or recitation of poetry, but no, it evidently came from a need to have a reliable form of bookkeeping. Very unromantic!

What do you think may surprise the reader (child or adult) the most?

I think the most surprising thing, and the hardest to grasp, is that money doesn’t exist as a thing. It’s only ever there because people agree that it’s there. If people stop agreeing, then the money disappears. There’s also no fixed amount of it, ever. It’s reasonably easy to understand that the value of things, like houses or automobiles, might go up and down, but the idea that money itself just comes and goes is much more difficult.

You mention several forms of money throughout the book. Do you have a favorite from centuries gone by?

Although I only mention it in passing, I am very fond of the stone money of the Yap islanders. When you first read about it, it seems really bizarre: How can unmovable stones, perhaps at the bottom of a lagoon, count as money? But the more you think about it, the cleverer it seems. For the people who use it, it serves its function extremely well.

What do you hope readers take away from The History of Money?

It’s an old story, but in my opinion it can’t be repeated often enough: Money is a great servant, but a bad boss. We should learn much more to keep it in its place, to be used as a tool but not be an end in itself. I also hope that someone reading the book may come away with an understanding of some basic concepts to do with money – like inflation, interest rates, and exchange rates. I think that if more of us understood these things better, we might be less frightened or in awe of it, and rather better at managing it.