Friday, July 30, 2021

"Coins, the Overlooked Keys to History"

Waddya mean overlooked? Has Mary Beard ever written about Roman brothel tokens* on her blog?
(well, yes I suppose she might have. If you consider the Times Literary Supplement her blog. She has 1504 entries)
From the New Yorker, July 28:
A delightful new book argues that numismatics—the study of coins—is the “beautiful science of civilizations.
Americans throw away sixty million dollars’ worth of coins every year, vacuuming them up or dropping them into trash bins with lint and straw wrappers.

Loose change was scarce last year. Retail and restaurant industries collected less cash from customers, so had fewer coins to deposit with their banks, while limited hours and new safety protocols at mints around the country slowed coin production. Some coin-based transactions evolved right away: cashless tipping became more common, even more toll booths were converted to pay-by-plate systems, and plenty of places began rounding up or down to simplify payment. But it wasn’t enough. Only a few months into the pandemic, cafés were putting up signs begging customers for change, laundromat owners were crossing state lines to buy quarters, banks were offering rewards for clients who surrendered their coins, and the Federal Reserve formed the U.S. Coin Task Force to address the crisis.

Even though the Fed was, and still is, rationing coins, the agency insists that the country is facing a circulation problem, not a shortage: like so many Americans over the past year, American coins have simply stayed home. Plenty of coins exist—some forty-eight billion dollars’ worth—they just aren’t moving around the economy the way they should. Instead, they’re sitting in jars and hiding under couch cushions, inadvertently hoarded by millions of American households.

Coin hoards are nothing new, but the celebrated varieties, the sunken pirate’s treasure chronicled by magazines like Coin World and COINage or the ancient burial mounds documented by outlets like CoinWeek, are a far cry from what most of us keep in our sock drawers. The historian Frank L. Holt calls these everyday collections of coins “nuisance hoards,” one of the many delightful things I learned from his new book, “When Money Talks,” a volume more charming than its mundane subtitle, “A History of Coins and Numismatics,” might suggest. A professor at the University of Houston, Holt teaches courses on Greek and Roman history, Alexander the Great, and numismatics—the field which he believes is the key to many others.

According to Holt, the average American household has around sixty-eight dollars’ worth of coins in their nuisance jars. Collectively they throw away another sixty million dollars’ worth every year, vacuuming them up or dropping them into trash bins with lint and straw wrappers. But we do cash in some of our change, including, on average, forty-one billion coins a year to Coinstar counting machines alone. Many banks no longer convert change for customers unless it arrives wrapped and counted, but, since 1991, seventeen thousand or so Coinstar kiosks have proliferated in grocery stores around the country, and they now convert some three billion dollars annually, sorting coins from debris for a fee of roughly twelve per cent, spitting out a voucher that customers trade in for cash or gift cards.

Of course, this year and last year weren’t most years, and what economists call the velocity—the rate at which coins move through the economy—slowed dramatically. Fewer people were visiting grocery stores at all, much less to exchange their coins, and, in the early days of the pandemic, when the route of coronavirus transmission was less known and cash came to seem like a contagion, consumers went out of their way to avoid using bills and coins. This is the basis for the Fed’s insistence that enough coinage exists, if we could just get it moving again.

Cash transactions are typically coin-intensive. Being prepared to make change for any purchase that isn’t rounded to whole dollars requires a minimum of ten coins: one nickel, two dimes, three quarters, and four pennies. Pennies have the highest velocity, since eighty per cent of all transactions less than a dollar require at least one of them. But they also have what is known in the financial world as a negative seigniorage, meaning that they’re worth less than what they cost to produce: every one-cent coin costs nearly two cents to mint. Even in non-pandemic years, pennies cost more than they are worth, and they also impose a time tax on every transaction: single-cent pricing costs customers and retailers approximately seven hundred and thirty million dollars a year in wages and lost productivity.

Pennies put the nuisance in nuisance hoard, and, when they make headlines these days, it’s often for that reason: an angry father dumped eighty thousand of them on his ex-wife’s lawn for his last child-support payment; an aggrieved business owner paid his local taxes with five wheelbarrows full of them; a disgruntled garage owner upended ninety thousand of them on a former employee’s driveway in lieu of a final paycheck. In response to all of the expense and headaches that small coins can cause, Australia and Canada both eliminated their pennies; in America, the effort to do so has been championed by the fictional cast of “The West Wing” and documented at length by the directors Jamie Kovach and Zach Edick in their film “Heads-Up: Will We Stop Making Cents?

Such a move would be far from unprecedented. Our coinage seems stable and fixed today, but, in previous decades and centuries, Americans spent half-cent coppers and three-cent nickels, half-dimes and two-cents, not to mention “eagles,” which came in two-and-a-half-dollar, five-dollar, ten-dollar, and twenty-dollar denominations. Holt, who managed to write a biography of Alexander the Great almost entirely on the basis of a few ancient coin-like medallions honoring his military might, argues that coins offer a rare, robust record of linguistic, artistic, and political change. Whereas other aspects of material culture are often mute about their meaning or disappear over time, coins have proved remarkably enduring, surviving for millennia for the very reason that they were created: the inherent strength of their source materials, like bronze and copper and silver and gold.

Almost every civilization has had some form of currency, but coins first proliferated nearly three thousand years ago among the Lydians, in what is today modern Turkey...

*While Waiting for Izabella to Tell Us About Roman Brothel Tokens: The Trade Tokens of Samuel Pepys’ London
FT Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska has probably forgotten more information on ancient and/or quasi- monetary regimes than I will ever know so I figure somewhere down the road she'll do a post on spintria vs. crypto but in the meantime here's my humble offering.
From Mr. Pepys' Small Change:....
Okay, so rather than actually writing about said tokens we were hoping to cadge something off Izzy.
Here's that Cambridge woman, Dame Winifred Mary Beard,  DBE, FSA, FBA, FRSL via GoodReads but I think they misattribute to the TLS; it's probably from the paper itself but I couldn't find it: 
A Roman brothel token?

I was hoping to keep out of the story about the "Roman brothel token" found by a metal detectorist near Putney Bridge and now on display at the Museum of London. But I think someone had better give a different version from the torrent of lurid stuff now pouring out about the sex-life of Roman London.

The object in question is a small bronze "coin" -- with a scene of sex on one side and a the Roman numeral XIIII on the other. Assuming that it is genuine (and there are quite a few fakes of these circulating and this one was not actually found in an archaeological context), then it is what archaeologists term a "spintria". This is a Latin word for male prostitute... but it is an entirely modern practice to apply it to these little objects; we haven't got the foggiest clue what the Romans called them... or (despite what you read) what they used them for. Quite a few have been found across the Roman world (there's another on the right).

The favourite idea circulating about this recent discovery is that it was part of the highly developed Roman brothel economy. Perhaps you handed over 14 asses (the coin not the animal, I mean), got the token and then went and redeemed it at one of the local brothels (a bit like a book token). Or maybe the sexual position depicted on the token was what you had paid your 14 asses for (shades here of the tour guides' explanations for the paintings of the different sexual positions depicted on the walls of the brothel at Pompeii ... a kind of visual menu for those who couldnt ask for it in Latin. Errr.. come again?)

Now, as there is no evidence for these things at all, no-one could actually disprove that. But remember that there is no Roman mention of such things, none have been found in any place that has been identified as a "brothel" . . .  and just think of the kind of infrastructure of the ancient "brothel industry" that this kind of internal currency would imply. (Let's face it, most sex for money in the ancient world  -- like now --happened at street corners, under bridges, after closing time at the bar... NOT in designated "brothels" . . . )....