Just about everyone reading this column has the experience of only using coins and currency as a medium of exchange in personal commerce. Some may have used Military Payment Certificates or other tokens at some point in their lives. But few people alive today have actually used what is referred to as “primitive money” for making cash payments.
The various definitions of primitive monies generally refer to forms that do not look anything like coins or currency that are used everywhere today.
But I do know one person who did receive one form of primitive money in everyday commerce – my father. He acquired a number of specimens of “country money” when he worked in the U.S. foreign aid program in the West African nation of Liberia from 1961-1966. Today’s reference catalogs refer to these pieces as kissi pennies.
Bong Mountain in Liberia is made up of about two-thirds pure iron. In the 1960s, it was considered the purest source of iron in the world. The comparatively ready availability of this metal contributed to the development of the kissi pennies. The coins circulated mostly in Liberia but also in parts of Sierra Leone and Guinea. Their first appearance was noted in the late 1800s. The last recorded use of these in commerce in Sierra Leone was in the 1940s and in Liberia up into the 1980s. However, my father told me that country money virtually disappeared in Liberia by the mid-1960s following an administrative reform in 1964.
The kissi pennies were manufactured by village blacksmiths under direction from the local chief. As a consequence, the blacksmith was often considered the second most important person after the chief in most villages. These coins were considered to have a soul. If a piece were broken, or lost its head or foot, it could be repaired. However, it would also need to be restored in a ceremony performed by the local medicine man (witch doctor).
These coins were pieces of twisted iron wire with a flat rounded head or ear at one end and a two-pointed foot at the other end. Lengths ranged from 6 to 16 inches. Their first initial recorded use was for making payments for slaves.
The initial purchasing power of kissi pennies was so small that they were often tied with cotton cords into bundles of 20 pieces. At the time my father received these pieces, they had an exchange value of about $1.25 U.S. Collectors today typically pay about $5 for them.
I now have a handful of these coins passed down to me. I often use them at the beginning of my speeches, when I hold up a specimen to ask if anyone can identify it. To date, no one has. When I am speaking to a group of children or students, I can almost sense the wheels spinning in their brains as they try to wrap their minds around something so different from what they receive and spend as actually once being spendable money somewhere in the world. They make for a great geography and history lesson.
I would appreciate hearing of any others who have had experience using alternate forms of a medium of exchange in everyday commerce. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick A. Heller was the American Numismatic Association 2017 Exemplary Service and 2012 Harry Forman Numismatic Dealer of the Year Award winner. He was also honored by the Numismatic Literary Guild in 2017 and 2016 for the Best Dealer-Published Magazine/Newspaper and for Best Radio Report. He is the communications officer of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Mich., and writes “Liberty’s Outlook,” a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at http://www.libertycoinservice.com. Some of his radio commentaries titled “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com).
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