kids encyclopedia robot

Banknote facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Benjamin Franklin nature printed 55 dollar front 1779
Fifty-five dollar bill in 'Continental currency'; leaf design by Benjamin Franklin, 1779

A banknote (more commonly known as a bill in the United States and Canada) is a paper by which a bank promises to pay to the bearer on demand. Together with coins, banknotes make up the cash forms of all modern money. Coins are generally used for lower valued monetary units, and banknotes for higher values.

Originally, the value of money was determined by the value of the material the money was made of, such as silver or gold. However, carrying around a lot of precious metal was cumbersome and often dangerous. As an alternative, banknotes would be issued. In financial terms, a note is a promise to pay someone money. Banknotes were originally a promise to give an amount of precious metal to anyone who presented the paper. People could pay for things by giving the banknote, and thus the stored value (usually in gold or silver coins kept in the bank's vault) that the banknote promised.


Paper currency first developed in Tang dynasty China during the 7th century, although true paper money did not appear until the 11th century, during the Song dynasty. The use of paper currency later spread throughout the Mongol Empire or Yuan dynasty China. European explorers like Marco Polo introduced the concept in Europe during the 13th century. Napoleon issued paper banknotes in the early 1800s. Cash paper money originated as receipts for value held on account "value received", and should not be conflated with promissory "sight bills" which were issued with a promise to convert at a later date.

The perception of banknotes as money has evolved over time. Originally, money was based on precious metals. Banknotes were seen by some as an I.O.U. or promissory note: a promise to pay someone in precious metal on presentation (see representative money). But they were readily accepted - for convenience and security - in London, for example, from the late 1600s onwards. With the removal of precious metals from the monetary system, banknotes evolved into pure fiat money.

Early Chinese paper money

Jiao zi
Song dynasty Jiaozi, the world's earliest paper money.
Yuan dynasty banknote with its printing plate 1287
A Yuan dynasty printing plate and banknote with Chinese words.

The first banknote-type instrument was used in China in the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Merchants would issue what are today called promissory notes in the form of receipts of deposit to wholesalers to avoid using the heavy bulk of copper coinage in large commercial transactions. Before the use of these notes, the Chinese used coins that were circular, with a rectangular hole in the middle. Coins could be strung together on a rope. Merchants, if they were rich enough, found that the strings were too heavy to carry around easily, especially for large transactions. To solve this problem, coins could be left with a trusted person, with the merchant being given a slip of paper (the receipt) recording how much money they had deposited with that person. When they returned with the paper to that person, their coins would be returned.

True paper money, called "jiaozi", developed from these promissory notes by the 11th century, during the Song dynasty. By 960, the Song government was short of copper for striking coins, and issued the first generally circulating notes. These notes were a promise by the ruler to redeem them later for some other object of value, usually specie. The issue of credit notes was often for a limited duration, and at some discount to the promised amount later. The jiaozi did not replace coins but was used alongside them.

The central government soon observed the economic advantages of printing paper money, issuing a monopoly for the issue of these certificates of deposit to several deposit shops. By the early 12th century, the amount of banknotes issued in a single year amounted to an annual rate of 26 million strings of cash coins. By the 1120s the central government started to produce its own state-issued paper money (using woodblock printing).

Even before this point, the Song government was amassing large amounts of paper tribute. It was recorded that each year before 1101, the prefecture of Xin'an (modern Shexian, Anhui) alone would send 1,500,000 sheets of paper in seven different varieties to the capital at Kaifeng. In 1101, the Emperor Huizong of Song decided to lessen the amount of paper taken in the tribute quota, because it was causing detrimental effects and creating heavy burdens on the people of the region. However, the government still needed masses of paper product for the exchange certificates and the state's new issuing of paper money. For the printing of paper money alone, the Song government established several government-run factories in the cities of Huizhou, Chengdu, Hangzhou, and Anqi.

The workforce employed in these paper money factories was quite large; it was recorded in 1175 that the factory at Hangzhou alone employed more than a thousand workers a day. However, the government issues of paper money were not yet nationwide standards of currency at that point; issues of banknotes were limited to regional areas of the empire, and were valid for use only in a designated and temporary limit of three years.

The geographic limitation changed between 1265 and 1274, when the late southern Song government issued a nationwide paper currency standard, which was backed by gold or silver. The range of varying values for these banknotes was perhaps from one string of cash to one hundred at the most. Ever after 1107, the government printed money in no less than six ink colors and printed notes with intricate designs and sometimes even with mixture of a unique fiber in the paper to combat counterfeiting.

The founder of the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan, issued paper money known as Jiaochao. The original notes were restricted by area and duration, as in the Song dynasty, but in the later years, facing massive shortages of specie to fund their rule, the paper money began to be issued without restrictions on duration. Venetian merchants were impressed by the fact that the Chinese paper money was guaranteed by the State.

European explorers and merchants

According to a travelogue of a visit to Prague in 960 by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, small pieces of cloth were used as a means of trade, with these cloths having a set exchange rate versus silver.

Around 1150, the Knights Templar would issue notes to pilgrims. Pilgrims would deposit valuables with a local Templar preceptory before embarking for the Holy Land and receive a document indicating the value of their deposit. They would then use that document upon arrival in the Holy Land to receive funds from the treasury of equal value.

In the 13th century, Chinese paper money of Mongol Yuan became known in Europe through the accounts of travelers, such as Marco Polo and William of Rubruck. Marco Polo's account of paper money during the Yuan dynasty is the subject of a chapter of his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, titled "How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All Over his Country".

All these pieces of paper are, issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver... with these pieces of paper, made as I have described, Kublai Khan causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends... and indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan's dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold

Marco PoloThe Travels of Marco Polo

In medieval Italy and Flanders, because of the insecurity and impracticality of transporting large sums of cash over long distances, money traders started using promissory notes. In the beginning these were personally registered, but they soon became a written order to pay the amount to whoever had it in their possession. These notes are seen as a predecessor to regular banknotes by some but are mainly thought of as proto bills of exchange and cheques. The term "bank note" comes from the notes of the bank ("nota di banco") and dates from the 14th century; it originally recognized the right of the holder of the note to collect the precious metal (usually gold or silver) deposited with a banker (via a currency account). In the 14th century, it was used in every part of Europe and in Italian city-state merchants colonies outside of Europe. For international payments, the more efficient and sophisticated bill of exchange ("lettera di cambio"), that is, a promissory note based on a virtual currency account (usually a coin no longer physically existing), was used more often. All physical currencies were physically related to this virtual currency; this instrument also served as credit.

Birth of European banknotes

The shift toward the use of these receipts as a means of payment took place in the mid-17th century, as the price revolution, when relatively rapid gold inflation was causing a re-assessment of how money worked. The goldsmith bankers of London began to give out the receipts as payable to the bearer of the document rather than the original depositor. This meant that the note could be used as currency based on the security of the goldsmith, not the account holder of the goldsmith-banker. The bankers also began issuing a greater value of notes than the total value of their physical reserves in the form of loans, on the assumption that they would not have to redeem all of their issued banknotes at the same time. This was a natural extension of debt-based issuance of split tally sticks used for centuries in places like St. Giles Fair, however done in this way it was able to directly expand the expansion of the supply of circulating money. As these receipts were increasingly used in the money circulation system, depositors began to ask for multiple receipts to be made out in smaller, fixed denominations for use as money. The receipts soon became a written order to pay the amount to whoever had possession of the note. These notes are credited as the first modern banknotes.

The first short-lived attempt at issuing banknotes by a central bank was in 1661 by Stockholms Banco, a predecessor of Sweden's central bank Sveriges Riksbank. These replaced the copper-plates being used instead as a means of payment. This banknote issue was brought about by the peculiar circumstances of the Swedish coin supply. Cheap foreign imports of copper had forced the Crown to steadily increase the size of the copper coinage to maintain its value relative to silver. The heavy weight of the new coins encouraged merchants to deposit it in exchange for receipts. These became banknotes when the manager of the bank decoupled the rate of note issue from the bank currency reserves. Three years later, the bank went bankrupt, after rapidly increasing the artificial money supply through the large-scale printing of paper money. A new bank, the Riksens Ständers Bank was established in 1668, but did not issue banknotes until the 19th century.

Permanent issue of banknotes

The modern banknote rests on the assumption that money is determined by a social and legal consensus. A gold coin's value is simply a reflection of the supply and demand mechanism of a society exchanging goods in a free market, as opposed to stemming from any intrinsic property of the metal. By the late 17th century, this new conceptual outlook helped to stimulate the issue of banknotes. The economist Nicholas Barbon wrote that money "was an imaginary value made by a law for the convenience of exchange".

A temporary experiment of banknote issue was carried out by Sir William Phips as the governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1690 to help fund the war effort against France. The other Thirteen Colonies followed in Massachusetts' wake and began issuing bills of credit, an early form of paper currency distinct from banknotes, to fund military expenditures and for use as a common medium of exchange. By the 1760s, these bills of credit were used in the majority of transactions in the Thirteen Colonies.

The first bank to initiate the permanent issue of banknotes was the Bank of England. Established in 1694 to raise money for the funding of the war against France, the bank began issuing notes in 1695 with the promise to pay the bearer the value of the note on demand. They were initially handwritten to a precise amount and issued on deposit or as a loan. There was a gradual move toward the issuance of fixed denomination notes, and by 1745, standardized printed notes ranging from £20 to £1,000 were being printed. Fully printed notes that did not require the name of the payee and the cashier's signature first appeared in 1855.

The Scottish economist John Law helped establish banknotes as a formal currency in France, after the wars waged by Louis XIV left the country with a shortage of precious metals for coinage.

In the United States there were early attempts at establishing a central bank in 1791 and 1816, but it was only in 1862 that the federal government of the United States began to print banknotes.

Central bank issuance of legal tender

Originally, the banknote was simply a promise to the bearer that they could redeem it for its value in specie, but in 1833 the second in a series of Bank Charter Acts established that banknotes would be considered as legal tender during peacetime.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, commercial banks were able to issue their own banknotes, and notes issued by provincial banking companies were the common form of currency throughout England, outside London. The Bank Charter Act of 1844, which established the modern central bank, restricted authorisation to issue new banknotes to the Bank of England, which would henceforth have sole control of the money supply in 1921. At the same time, the Bank of England was restricted to issue new banknotes only if they were 100% backed by gold or up to £14 million in government debt. The Act gave the Bank of England an effective monopoly over the note issue from 1928.


5 Euro note in bad condition
A 5 euro note so badly damaged it has been torn in half. The note has later been repaired with tape.

A banknote is removed from circulation because of everyday wear and tear from its handling. Banknotes are passed through a banknote sorting machine for determining authenticity and fitness for circulation, or may be classified unfit for circulation if they are worn, dirty, soiled, damaged, mutilated or torn. Unfit notes are returned to the central bank for secure online destruction by high-speed banknote sorting machines using a cross-cut shredder device similar to a paper shredder with security level P-5 (pieces smaller than 30 mm²) according to the standard DIN 66399–2. This small size decomposes a banknote into typically more than 500 tiny pieces and rules out reconstruction like a jigsaw puzzle because the shreds from many banknotes are commingled.

A subsequent briquettor compresses shredded paper material into a small cylindrical or rectangular form for the disposal (e. g. landfill or burning) Before the 1990s, unfit banknotes were destroyed by incineration with a higher risk of manipulations.

When a Federal Reserve Bank of the United States receives a cash deposit from a commercial bank or another financial institution, it checks the individual notes to determine whether they are fit for future circulation. About one-third of the notes that the Fed receives are unfit, and the Fed destroys them. US dollar banknotes last an average of more than five years.

Contaminated banknotes are also decommissioned and removed from circulation, primarily to prevent the spread of diseases.

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Papel moneda para niños

kids search engine
Banknote Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.