Friday, 24 August 2012

Elephant No. 327: Folded Banknote

My mother sent me a link to this activity a few months ago. At the time, however, I was still suffering the trauma of trying origami, so I tucked it away for a future time. I think I've recovered enough to try it today.

Early paper money took two forms: drafts representing a value held on account, and bills which were issued with an implied promise to convert them to the equivalent in precious metals such as gold or silver. As time passed, and precious metals were used less and less as a form of exchange, paper currency evolved to represent an abstract amount, the de facto value of which could fluctuate in relation to other currencies.

The first primitive banknotes—albeit made of leather rather than paper—were circulated in China in 118 B.C., during the Han Dynasty. The first actual paper currency also originated in China, sometime during the seventh century A.D. Because merchants wanted to avoid carrying large quantities of copper coinage, paper notes were used instead. The idea was that a string of coins would be left with a trustworthy person, who provided a note indicating the amount of coinage received. When the merchant returned with the note, the coins would be returned to him.

Jiao zi, the world's first currency, ca. A.D. 960.
Northern Song Dynasty.

In A.D. 960, China's central government, lacking the copper to mint sufficient numbers of coins, turned to the production of government-issued paper notes. The notes were produced using a woodblock printing technique, and were used in tandem with coins. By 1120, the government had established a monopoly on printing promissory notes in lieu of coinage, and had also restricted the number of places such notes could be deposited or redeemed.

For over 150 years, banknotes were restricted to regional use, and expired after a three-year period. It wasn't until 1274 that the late Southern Song Dynasty instituted a national currency, backed by gold and silver. Interestingly, even as early as 1107, Chinese currency was produced using at least six colours, and with specific fibres to prevent counterfeiting.

Venetian merchants, trading with China in the wake of Marco Polo, were impressed that Chinese currency was backed by the government, rather than by private banking houses. They brought the idea back to Europe, although it wasn't immediately adopted.

As trade networks expanded, it became not only impractical but unsafe to transport large quantities of coinage. As a result, money traders in particular began using promissory notes. In the beginning, these were like receipts, issued to specific individuals, and redeemable only by those same people. In time, however, they evolved into written orders to pay whomever was carrying the note.

The first official European banknotes were issued in 1661 by Stockholms Banco. In France, banknotes were issued by small creditors until the reign of Louis XIV, and were neither backed by the government nor of widespread circulation. It wasn't until Scottish economist John Law—then France's Comptroller General of Finances—established the Banque Générale in 1716 that a bank would hold more paper bills and notes than assets such as gold and silver. Ironically, Law was also responsible for the Mississippi Bubble and one of France's most chaotic economic crises. 

In the United States, the first permanently circulating banknotes were issued in Massachusetts in the early 1690s. By the eighteenth century, printed banknotes with fixed denominations were in use across the Thirteen Colonies, although each colony issued its own currency.

In the country's early years, there was often an insufficient supply of coins, and banknotes represented most of the money in circulation. As a result, banks often failed during economic crises, and their notes were often paid out of reserves, below their actual value. Sometimes the notes were completely worthless. It wasn't until 1862 that the federal government printed its own banknotes, although as early as 1789 private banks were given federal charters to operate as pseudo-national banks.

Of all the banks in the early United States, those in Louisiana were the strongest. Beginning in 1842, Louisiana required banks to keep one-third of the value of notes and deposits in coins and short-term paper. The term "Dixie" as a shorthand term for the American South actually derives from notes issued by the Citizens' Bank of Louisiana. Because the banknotes were in both English and French, the term "dix" (French for "ten") was turned into the slang "dixie".

Ten/Dix Dollars, issued by the Citizens' Bank of Louisiana.
Photo: Reggie Dawes

Today, most banknotes are issued by a national treasury, a federal reserve, or a central bank. Historically, however, private banks were responsible for issuing banknotes. In some countries, this is still the practice. In the United Kingdom, for example, commercial banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to print their own banknotes for use within their countries, although these are not legal tender elsewhere. In Hong Kong, three commercial banks are permitted to issue Hong Kong dollar notes, and in Singapore until 2002, a non-banking organization called the Board of Commissioners of Currency Singapore was responsible for issuing Singapore dollars.

Scottish banknote.

For centuries, most banknotes have been made with rag paper made containing cotton that is sometimes blended with linen or other fibres. This makes it resilient, and the modern addition of a gelatin or vinyl infusion gives it added strength. Interestingly, most regular paper glows slightly under ultraviolet light; paper used in currency lacks the substances that cause this glow.

Most banknotes today are imprinted on engraved plates that essentially mould the wet paper, along with fine threads of metal or fibre. This allows for highly unique paper that is also able bear multiple watermarks, swirls and other anti-counterfeiting features. Some banknotes also feature holographic foil images, such as those of Canada; and even plastic windows with embedded images, as seen in certain denominations in Australia and Canada.

Canada's new hundred-dollar bill, with security features.

Many countries, particularly in the developing world, issue banknotes made entirely of substances such as Tyvek and polymers. Although hailed as a means of preventing counterfeiting, polymers sometimes cause problems. In Canada, for example, the plastic windows in large-denomination bills have been shown to tear or even fuse to other notes.

Nor are banknotes always limited to thin, paper-like substances. During a period of hyperinflation in Germany in 1923, for example, banknotes were printed on pure silk. The German city of Bielefield even produced currency in leather, velvet, linen and wood, in addition to silk, although these notes were issued primarily for collectors. Other banknotes printed on cloth include Communist Revolutionary currency printed in 1933, and emergency money printed on khaki shirting in 1902, during the Boer War.

Money printed on sealskin, issued by the Russian-American Company
in Alaska, 1816–1832.

Leather banknotes—and coins—have been issued during times of siege or other emergency, and during its administration of Alaska, Russian banknotes were issued on sealskin. In Canada during Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763–1764, currency was printed on wood, as it was by the Hudson's Bay Company.

Even more unusual items have been used in place of promissory notes over the centuries. These include chess pieces used in Bohemia during 1848, and playing cards used in France during the nineteenth century, French Canada from 1685 to 1757, the Isle of Man in the early nineteenth century, and in Germany after the First World War.

Because of the perceived value of paper money, it is often produced in novelty forms. In my own very small collection, I have "money" issued by casinos, roadside attractions and shops. I even have something called "Hell Money" which figures prominently in Chinese ceremonies held a year after a loved one's death. The idea is to burn the money, which then ends up in the hands of the deceased person for his or her use in the afterlife.

Modern hell money, which is burned on the anniversary of a loved one's death.

And then there's my Zimbabwe money which, while not technically a novelty item, comes in such ridiculous denominations—One Hundred Trillion Dollars is just one of the three bills I own—that it's certainly a novelty to me.

Because of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe dollars have no real value—but it's fun
to own an actual one-hundred-trillion-dollar bill.

Many people also collect paper money as a hobby. Known as "notaphily" it is a slowly growing field, although some rare banknotes have sold for well over a million dollars—far beyond their face value.

An online search for origami elephants made with U.S. dollar bills turns up many videos and sets of written instructions. For printed instructions, this set looked good, as it included a still photograph for each step. I feared that this level of detail would likely not help someone like me, since I am generally flummoxed by anything involving paper engineering. Or any kind of engineering.

For those who prefer to follow along with a video, I found this one helpful:

I didn't have a one-dollar bill, but in the U.S., all paper money is the same size, so my five-dollar bill should work. If you don't live in the United States and want to try this, you could use a piece of paper with the following dimensions: 66 mm (2.6 inches) x 156 mm (6.1 inches).

I honestly started this activity with trepidation. If you're familiar with my previous adventure with origami for this blog, you'll understand why.

Since the bill I had was kind of ratty and crumpled, I actually ironed it. I think this is the first time in my life that I've ever ironed money.

I won't show you every fold I made, because I suspect I didn't exactly follow all the instructions properly. But here are a few, er, highlights.

This was shockingly simple for me. I think it took me about twenty minutes, and that included taking photographs. It was so simple that I was tempted to try again with a different elephant design. But I feared that might be tempting fate.

I really like this little guy, and it was so simple, that I think it would be a fun way to hand people money. Well, not at the supermarket checkout, because they'd hate me—and elephants. But if you're tucking money inside a child's card or something, it's rather cute.

My only regret is that I didn't have a one-dollar bill. If I had, I would actually have ended up with the pyramid eye in the approximate location of an elephant's real eye. That would have been even more fun.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In many parts of India, domesticated elephants are a common sight. Used in weddings, at temples, for heavy labour—and, sadly, for street begging—elephants are frequently seen on the roadways of major cities and along local highways.

In September 2010, a 35-year-old Asian bull elephant named Bhola was hit by a large truck near Delhi and injured. Blinded in one eye and suffering a large gash in his back, Bhola was taken away by his owners to recuperate. Volunteers from the non-profit organization Wildlife SOS quickly stepped in to offer medical care, which was gratefully accepted by Bhola's owners—at first.

Apparently feeling that Bhola should go back to work as soon as possible, his owners began denying veterinarians access. Hearing that Bhola was about to be smuggled across the border into a neighbouring province, police moved in.

When Bhola's mahout could not provide a legal transit pass and ownership papers for Bhola, both Bhola and his mahout were arrested and detained at the Loni police station. Although the mahout was released, Bhola remained chained up outside, while police waited for Bhola's owner to show up with the proper papers.

Bhola "under arrest" at the Loni police station, October 2010.
Photo: © Shariq Allaqaband/Barcroft India

Bhola's owner never appeared, and Bhola became something of a local tourist attraction. Since Bhola was now essentially homeless, Wildlife SOS swung into action and petitioned the court for custody of Bhola.

Custody was quickly granted, but the challenges didn't end there. Bhola had been a well-known fixture within the region, as he was often used in weddings and in heavy labour. His profile had also risen while chained up outside the police station. To complicate matters, the region which he was being kept was also considered somewhat lawless, and officials feared a riot if Bhola was removed in broad daylight.

Bhola was accordingly loaded up in the evening, and transferred to a rescue centre near Agra, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) away. The rescue centre was seen as the best option for Bhola, not only because he required medical care, but because he had never been anything but a domesticated elephant, and would have a hard time adjusting to life in the wild.

Bhola loaded onto a truck under cover of darkness, October 2010.
Photo: © Wildlife SOS/Barcroft India

Once he arrived at the rescue centre, Bhola was quickly befriended by the 58-year-old elephant Chumpa. Bhola finally received the care he needed, and will hopefully never be arrested again.

Bhola and his new friend Champa, November 2010
Photo: © Wildlife SOS/Barcroft India

To Support Elephant Welfare
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)
Wildlife SOS (India) 
The Elephant Sanctuary (Tennessee, U.S.A.)

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