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From Wampums to Spanish Reals

Episode 1 of 5

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 02 December 2013

The US dollar - or the Greenback as it is often known - is still the world's most important currency today, just as it was for most of the 20th Century. Wherever you go in world, you can be fairly certain that one currency - the American dollar - will be accepted. Yet it was not always so - and indeed, the dollar had a tortuous birth and a chequered history.

In the year that marks the centenary of the US Federal Reserve System, Graham Ingham presents a five-part exploration of how the dollar became established and how it ultimately became a symbol of American identity - a process that took several hundred years, and was no easy task.

Although today it seems obvious that the international importance of the dollar is a reflection of American power, its establishment and development didn't mirror the growth of the US economy at first. Indeed, long before the dollar became America's currency, the 17th century colonists from Britain had been forced to address the basic question of what money was and who should control it.

In this first programme we hear how, when the first colonists arrived in the 17th Century, money was in such short supply they bartered with native Americans using Wampums, or cowrie shells, in order to survive. Later they traded with each other using nails, peas or even dried tobacco - anything that was small and could be carried around. They also used an assortment of foreign coins, but there was always a shortage of money because the British parliament prevented the colonies from raising taxes or issuing currency.

Producer: Ruth Evans
A Ruth Evans production for BBC Radio 4.


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