Fur Money

Not surprisingly, the most northern and coldest countries of the world have made use of furs as a medium of exchange and store of value, particularly among the societies that advanced beyond the barter stage.

The most highly developed system of fur currency existed in medieval Russia, where the word for money was kuna, stemming from the skin of the marten (kunitza). The marten is a close relative of the sable, and its soft, thick, valuable fur is called sable. The use of fur currency stretched as far back as the eighth century a.d. The grand dukes of Moscow furnished furs to pay traveling expenses of ambassadors sent to foreign countries. Russian law codes from the eleventh and twelfth centuries suggest a fixed ratio between fur currency and silver coins. These codes made fines payable either in 5 metal kuna or two skins.

At first skins had to be complete to be acceptable in trade, including snouts and paws. As the demand for money expanded with trade, snouts, claws, and ears functioned as money. Eventually one-inch circles of skin with a government stamp met the need for a medium of exchange. These one-inch stamped circles may have been convertible in whole skins at a government depot, but the evidence is scanty.

Squirrel skins and hare skins also circulated as money, at least in certain areas. The smallest of the early Russian coins, the polushka, got its name from hare-skin currency. Ushka was the Russian word for “hare skin,” and pol meant half, suggesting it took two polushka coins to equal one hare skin.

The kuna monetary standard endured in Russia until late in the Middle Ages, lasting until 1409 in Pskov and until 1411 in Novgorod. Merchants of the Hanseatic League in Novgorod accepted Russian fur currency as an instrument of trade.

As Russia phased out its fur currency in favor of metallic currency, the northern colonies of the New World discovered the value of furs as a form of money. In 1673 the Council of Quebec decreed that bearskins be accepted in payments. On 17 September 1674 the same council defined moose skins as acceptable money, declaring that “no one is entitled to refuse them in payment of debt.” The records of the Hudson Bay Company show that furs continued to serve as money until the mid-nineteenth century. The company would sell a rifle to an Indian for a stack of beaver skins that reached as high as the rifle was tall. Twenty beaver skins bought a horse at Fort Saskatchewan in 1854, and one beaver skin a scalping knife. The various trading posts of the Hudson Bay Company counted their sales in terms of the number of beaver skins they collected, converting the values of other skins to beaver equivalents at a fixed ratio. Other skins have also served as money. The district of the Yukon used the skin of a mature land otter as a unit of value before beaver skins took over.

Furs shares many of the characteristics of other commodities that societies have recognized as money. Like precious metals and shells, furs sometimes met ornamental needs. Beaver skins also had religious significance for some Indian tribes. Also, furs resembled livestock in supplying the practical needs of survival in northern societies often besieged by harsh winters. These characteristics, combined with durability and ease of transportation, made furs a workable currency in remote areas where metallic currency was in short supply.