From the Far East to Europe and Africa, cloth has surfaced as a medium of exchange and a unit of measurement. During the second millennium, silk cloth passed as money in China, circulating in pieces of a uniform size. The Chinese word pu began as a word referring to “cloth,” but came to denote “money,” reflecting the importance of silk cloth as money. Silk money survived the advent of metallic coinage in China. In 460 b.c. the government formed three separate boards for management of currency, one for gems, one for gold, and one for coins and silk.
Northern Europe furnishes numerous instances of cloth money during the medieval era. The Baltic Slavs used linen as a means of payment in commercial transactions, and small strips of thin textiles circulated as coin. In the language of the Northern Slavs the word platni meant “linen,” and the word for “to pay” was platiti. Up to the fourteenth century Sweden made use of a hand-woven woolen cloth currency called wadmal. Creditors had to accept wadmal in the payment of money debts, and coined money and wadmal were linked in a fixed exchange ratio. Medieval Iceland also called its hand-woven woolen cloth money wadmal. Iceland’s wadmal met the need for a general standard of value, circulated as money, and even in modern times parts of Iceland valued land in units of wadmal. Certain districts of medieval Norway accepted cloth as legal-tender currency, and a district of medieval Germany had a cloth standard that set a certain length of cloth to Reilmark, or Gewandmark, predecessors of the modern-day German mark. In pre-Christian Prussia pieces of cloth adorned with bronze rings passed as money.
Cloth also enjoyed wide acceptance as money, lasting in some cases into the early twentieth century in several areas of Africa. In Zambia calico found favor as currency and was used in wages and marriage dowries. On the west coast of Africa a unit of money called a long served as a unit of account. Originally, a long referred to a length of cloth, but later evolved into an abstract unit of account used only for setting and quoting the prices. White shirts of the sort commonly worn for everyday dress circulated as money in parts of equatorial Africa. In the Congo barter transactions were conducted on the basis of prices set in pieces of cloth. A piece was 12 yards of standard quality cloth. In districts of the Sudan the unit of account for pricing moderately priced goods was bundles of 20 cotton threads.
Certain tribes in the Philippines used European cloth as a monetary standard. A monetary unit of cloth was a piece of cloth as long as the spread of a man’s arms. The natives priced jars, glassware, gongs, and perishable items in terms of cloth, and fines were paid in cloth. An adulterer paid a fine of 215 meters of cloth. In Borneo standard rolls of cloth were a sort of legal tender of money.
In the nineteenth century cloth passed as money on Button Island of the Indonesian archipelago. The cloth money was called kampuna, meaning the “head cloth of a king,” and it was woven on official looms, which validated its use as currency. Ordinary cloth bore no special value as currency and was traded only for its utility.