A banknote is a promissory note made by a bank, payable to the owner of the note and is considered legal tender (along with coins). While currency has taken many forms over the course of time, banknotes were first developed in China during the 7th century. The heavy bulk of coin had become cumbersome and unsafe, so the merchants of the Tang Dynasty came up with a sort of receipt that represented coinage. The ‘receipt’ evolved into paper money. It took seven hundred years for the concept of paper money to find its way to Europe, and another three hundred years for bank notes to begin circulating outside of China.
The transition between ‘receipt’ and legal tender was fraught with problems. The first bore nothing more than a picture depicting merchants, and a certain number of coins that corresponded with the amount represented. Printing up bogus copies would have been easy enough for anyone with a printing press. To be clear, in the days of the 7th century, printing presses were not exactly household items. On the other hand merchants, wholesalers and moneylenders made up the wealthier members of society and could definitely afford to source one out. Plus, they would be the most likely people to benefit from making counterfeit promissory notes. Members of the reigning dynasty eventually took over the production of banknotes and the general population began to recognize their usefulness.
Since the bank note first came into use, it has been printed on a variety of materials. Some are predictable, others are not so easy to recognize. The first Chinese banknotes were printed on paper made from mulberry bark. Today, there are some denominations of Japanese banknotes that contain the same material. Wooden bank notes have been used several times in history, and not just paper made from wood – actual pieces of wood.
In Canada, during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, the Hudson’s Bay Company issued wooden bank notes. In Bohemia wood checkerboard pieces were used as banknotes in 1848. Even more curious was the use of playing cards as banknotes several times in history. France, French Canada, the Isle of Man and Germany all have records of playing cards as banknotes. During times of war, when banknotes were hard to come by, it was not uncommon for reigning monarchy to issue banknotes from the battlefield – made of animal skin. For example when Russia still held administrative control of Alaska, banknotes made from sealskin were issued.
Some of the more common materials used for banknotes are linen, abaca, cotton paper and silk. On a global scale, the most common material is either polymer or cotton paper with silk threads embedded into the cotton. Of course, no matter what the base material is, the paper is always made in a manner that makes it more resilient. The banknote needs to be able to resist tearing, smearing, fading and disintegrating in liquid for at least two years. Many mints now infuse the paper with a special formulation of alcohol to give it extra strength. Polymer banknotes are made from biaxially-oriented polypropylene, which is a very thin and pliable plastic.
The biggest benefit of the polymer banknote is its durability. However, when combined with state of the art security features commonly used today, the polymer banknote becomes virtually impervious to counterfeiting. To date, the following countries are the only ones to circulate polymer banknotes: Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Samoa, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Zambia. Nigeria and Canada have laid out plans to begin issuing polymer banknotes in the near future.
The above list of countries already circulating polymer banknotes omits a few significant nations. The US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, China and Japan are all world super powers whose currency is traded far and wide but have chosen to incorporate alternative counterfeit protection devices. Watermarks have been included in the banknote making process for many years. They usually bear the image of a national figure pertinent to the history of the country. Security threads are another common security feature. Although a thread in a banknote may look fairly mundane, they are actually quite complicated components. The usually contain fluorescent elements, have metallic features, are magnetic and bear micro printing of national slogans.
The banknote is definitely not what it used to be. From a monochromatic mulberry bark parchment to a multi-colored slip of plastic, the banknote has become a statement of the world’s advancements in technology. Next time you withdraw money from the bank, take a moment to investigate the banknotes. They are more than just a promissory note.