In the 1860s, the problem was hoarding — a side effect of the Civil War — so merchants, corporations and local governments tried printing their own money, called shinplasters. Congress tried to stamp out the practice with an 1862 law outlawing such private currency, but the shinplasters flooded cities from New York to Richmond, Va.
“We think of the sovereign or the state as having a monopoly on investing money with value, but American history has shown repeatedly that’s not the case,” said Joshua Greenberg, a historian and the editor of Commonplace, a journal of early American life. “Whenever there’s a downturn or a shortage, maybe you just lived somewhere pretty rural, shinplasters filled that void.”
Arguably, isolated versions of shinplasters have re-emerged in recent years, he said. In Western Massachusetts, you can exchange federal notes for BerkShares. Northern Michigan has Bay Bucks. In Central Florida, Disney Dollars can still get you a soda or fries.
The people saving pennies
Coins will always have defenders in curators and collectors like the 26,000 members of the American Numismatic Association. The group’s education director, Rod Gillis, hopes they never stop circulating. “I would really hate for us to become a cashless society,” he said. “I would hate for us to lose our historical perspective.”
He called coins representations of our history and culture at any given moment. Before the penny featured Lincoln, it showed Lady Liberty in a Native American headdress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt landed on the dime because of his efforts to stop polio through the “March of Dimes” of the 1940s.
“The designs don’t just happen out of happenstance,” he said. “You can learn so much about our culture from just learning about what appears on our coins.”
And coins have survived other inventions — paper bills, stock markets, E-ZPass — outlasting many of the monarchies, republics and empires they were made to hold together. Their value as artifacts is “wonderful,” said Dr. Fleur Kemmers, an archaeologist at Goethe University Frankfurt. She called ancient coins “historic documents,” passed down by people across centuries and continents as they haggled, hoarded and made their way through daily life. She said that in their design, material makeup and discovered locations, coins can reveal clues about culture, politics, religion, industry, trade and household life.