The 5 Most Surreal Financial Apocalypses From History
Nothing in the world is more taken for granted than money -- our only concern is whether we have enough of it, not whether it will work at all. Nobody puts in ten hours of overtime and spends the whole time praying that by payday the grocery store will still accept the currency ... despite the fact that this exact situation has played out again and again. Money is a fragile thing, vulnerable to a whole lot of societal factors that you have no control over whatsoever. Which is why sometimes things just go completely insane ...
Hungary's 13,600,000,000,000,000 Percent Inflation
So you head down to the grocery store to get a box of Pop-Tarts for lunch, because you live alone and haven't flipped the page on your Dragonriders of Pern calendar in three months. When you get to the store, you realize you've left your wallet at home, so you have to put the Pop-Tarts back on the shelf and drive to your apartment to get it. By the time you make it back to buy your lunch, you see that the Pop-Tarts are twice as expensive as they were when you first got to the store an hour ago. At lunchtime the next day, they're five times as expensive. A month later, they cost more than your car.
"Sorry, ma'am, no cards. We only take sexual favors."
What? When Did This Happen?
The Hungarian economy experienced possibly the most catastrophic hyperinflation in history between 1945 and 1946, with inflation topping out at roughly 200 percent per day and prices doubling about every 15 hours.
How the hell did this happen? After being left in economic shambles after losing World War I, Hungary experienced a period of nasty inflation until the League of Nations bailed them out with a loan. The Hungarian korona was replaced by the gold-backed pengo, which for a time was the most stable currency in the region, despite sounding no less made up. However, the Great Depression punched Hungary's agriculture industry in the Hungonads, and this, combined with their willingness to print as much pengo as they damn well felt like, started the inflation train rolling. Eventually it would literally take a truckload of bills to buy a loaf of bread.
She's lighting that cigarette with a billion pengo note.
Naturally, the government's response was to print even more money in larger and larger denominations, finally culminating with the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengo note (imagine a hundred quintillion dollar bill).
Only the introduction of a new currency backed by gold, foreign currencies and foreign securities -- the forint -- broke the free fall. After that, there was only one thing left to do with the mountains of surplus pengo:
Argentina Runs Out of Change, and Nobody Knows Why
So you walk into Big Lots to buy a wading pool and a jar of mayonnaise, and one of the cashiers stops you and tells you that they can't sell anything today. Assuming that you've been profiled, you stop at a small family-owned drugstore and try buying just the mayonnaise. You pay in cash, but instead of giving you your change, the kindly old proprietor scoots a jumbled pile of candy corn across the counter.
Fighting the urge to punch the senility out of his skull, you hurry outside to try and catch the bus downtown, but you don't have any coins to pay the fare. Noticing your plight, the bus driver offers to sell you the change you need ... for 20 bucks a quarter.
These are made mostly of copper, but they're worth their weight in gold.
What? When Did This Happen?
Welcome to Argentina, where a few years ago they were plagued by a mysterious coin shortage. In the third-largest economy in Latin America, change was insanely difficult (if not flat-out impossible) to come by, for reasons that no one can seem to determine for certain. The Argentine government accused ordinary citizens of hoarding and even melting coins for their metal value, because evidently they believed that their citizens were trying to build the Iron Giant. The citizens blamed the government for not minting enough coins, despite the fact that the government had actually minted over 500 million new coins in 2008, only to see the shortage get even worse, like the entire nation was made up of nothing but sofa cushions.
"Ask for change, motherfucker. See what happens."
Commerce became a nightmare; with no coins to give to customers, big stores simply refused to sell anything to anybody, and smaller businesses literally handed out candy instead of coins for change, presumably because somebody once saw that work in a cartoon. Even the banks, which historically are places where money lives, refused to give out more than a few coins at a time, even under threat of heavy government fines (possibly because the fines were payable by bills and/or credit).
And yes, Buenos Aires' privately owned bus companies, which accepted only exact change for fare, would amass coins and then turn around and sell them for a profit, which if you think about it is the most perfect business plan anyone will ever create.
A government plan to implement an electronic card payment system was promised, but full deployment has been delayed for years, presumably because the citizens of Argentina are now hoarding all the plastic cards and building forts with them.
Businesses Just Print Their Own Money During the Civil War
Let's say you're in a war-torn environment where government-backed currency has no value and you have to exchange your personal wealth for privately minted coins, such as Chuck E. Cheese's. You do all your business there -- eating, drinking, collecting trinkets to decorate the room above your parents' garage that you refer to in conversation as a "studio apartment." Over time, you've amassed a considerable private stock of tokens and tickets.
Mr. E. Cheese is a close personal friend.
But one day you go to trade some of them in for a Dixie cup of cherry Coke and a New Kids on the Block pencil sharpener when the owners reveal with a chuckle that all of your wealth isn't worth the paper it's printed on and direct you past the Rampage machine toward the door.
What? When Did This Happen?
By the time America entered the second year of the Civil War in 1862, government-minted coins were disappearing from circulation. As you might imagine, this made it nigh impossible for people to conduct any kind of business, because the government was split in two and both sides were printing their own paper money.
It was a true tragedy for the National Mint.
Eventually, businesses (and private citizens) began to mint their own coins, which are now known as Civil War tokens. The tokens were used by shopkeepers, soldiers and civilians alike, and displayed either the name and location of the business that had minted them or one of a variety of charming patriotic slogans, such as "If anybody attempts to tear it down, shoot him on the spot" and "Black people -- who are they kidding, right? Long live the South."
Why are there palm trees in front of the White House?
Problem was, back then the U.S. economy was still based on the gold standard, meaning each printed and/or minted form of currency represented a certain amount of gold that the government physically held in reserve. Therefore, all of the privately minted coins that had made it into circulation were worth diddly shit, and the minters of each coin were more than happy to remind anyone who came looking to collect on their printed value of that fact. This is why hoarding Dave & Busters prize tickets is not a sound retirement plan, for instance.
The federal government (that is, the Union) finally intervened in 1864, when it made the minting and usage of non-government-issued coins punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and a maximum of five years in prison. In their defense, they kind of had a lot going on at the time.
Bermuda's Hog Money
Let's say you're doing work for a company that requires you to live on a job site removed from the rest of civilization, such as helping to build a resort or a farm on some obscure tropical island, or working on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. The only way you can get the things you need to live (food, clothing and Jean-Claude Van Damme DVDs) is through the company, which is more than happy to sell you these things on credit, or in exchange for specially printed company currency.
Sure, you're getting fleeced a little bit by not earning an actual wage, but it's a matter of convenience -- you can't take a boat all the way back to the mainland every time you want to go to Food Lion.
But then suddenly, you get one of those "corporate restructuring" emails that none of us ever read, telling you that the company has been bought out and, although you still have your job, all of your credit and special currency is now worth even less than dick (roughly about the same as a Xeroxed copy of dick with a little word balloon that says "IOU"). Oh, and the new boss has started printing his own coins and declared that if you don't use them, he will beat the piss out of you.
"This is no way to run a Dippin' Dots!"
What? When Did This Happen?
Prior to becoming a British colony, Bermuda (then known as the Somers Isles) was made up of private British stock companies that had colonized a workforce to make them fistfuls of cash by farming, whaling and diving for pearls. To keep those fistfuls clenched as tightly as possible, the companies paid these workers with credit that could be used to purchase overpriced goods, rather than giving them any actual money.
Eventually the colonists started causing trouble, so the companies appointed a new governor/manager -- Daniel Tucker -- to calm shit down and get the profits flowing again. So to be clear, this was a guy who was in charge of the business side (hiring/firing) and was the supreme ruler of the land (he publicly hanged anyone caught speaking out against him). So imagine the disdain you feel for the worst boss you ever had, combined with the seething hatred of a brutal dictator felt by the oppressed. That was how Bermuda felt about Tucker.
This, multiplied by tens of thousands of hands.
To help get his workforce under control, Tucker disbanded the entire "work for credit" system and paid the colonists with coins that he brought with him. Unlike legitimate British currency, Tucker's coins were made from brass, which made them slightly more valuable than an old tuba. Evidently deliberating for long hours on what to stamp on each coin face to invigorate the staff, somebody settled on a wild pig, causing the people to refer to it as "hogge money." People literally only used the currency because they knew Tucker would kill or torture them if they didn't.
Finally, some colonists tricked Tucker into leaving (by giving him a fake letter from the homeland demanding his return), and the colonists threw the coins away pretty much the instant Tucker left Bermuda. And we mean literally threw them away -- collectors are still finding piles of the coins in ditches around the area. What replaced the hogge coins as a means of exchange? Tobacco. So basically they fixed the situation by adopting the same economic system that many prisons use today.
The British Money-Printing Boat
You walk out to pick up your mail one afternoon when you find that someone has stuffed a massive wad of cash into your mailbox.
After carefully ensuring that there isn't an index finger wrapped inside of it, you click your heels and rush off to spend it as quickly as you can. Amazingly, when you tell your friends about it later over the phone, each one of them reveals that they, too, were visited by the money fairy. The next day, there are even more dollars waiting for you next to the electric bill and the Value City mass mailing. Pretty soon you're finding money lying on the sidewalk, caught in bushes and blowing down the street like tumbleweeds. You even see an ad in the newspaper offering to sell you money for the cost of the paper it's printed on.
Congratulations: You are a victim of a plot to destroy America.
What? When Did This Happen?
The first organized American attempt to print money occurred in 1775 at the outset of the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress issued paper money known as Continentals to help fund the war effort. Actually, the Continentals were pretty much identical to modern U.S. currency -- promissory notes insured by the government for a printed value. The economy was not yet based on the gold standard, so the Continentals didn't represent anything physical (pay attention, this is important).
Why the hell don't we have any thirty-three-and-a-third-cent coins?
The British navy, in an equal effort to thwart the upstart colonists and engage in unbridled hilarity, set up a printing press on board the HMS Phoenix docked in New York Harbor and churned out phony Continentals by the skullduggerous truckload. It was the first recorded instance of financial sabotage during wartime, and it nearly worked.
The plan was to undermine the colonists' confidence in the new money and crash the fragile revolutionary economy to help bring about a quick British victory. The quality of the counterfeit Continentals was so good, and the market was so inundated with them, that colonists became suspicious of all Continental currency and pretty much refused to deal with it. Nobody would spend it, and even fewer would accept it.
"We'll use bullets for money instead. Those are always worth something."
The British were so confident in their plan and the quality of their fakes that they didn't even try to hide what they were doing. They literally put an ad in New York newspapers in 1777, offering to sell the fake money to British loyalists for the cost of the paper. With the supply of colonial currency effectively poisoned with counterfeits and the value of Continentals plummeting steadily every year, Congress decided to get out of the money game, and by 1781 Continentals stopped circulating altogether. It was then up to the individual states to raise their share of the money for the war, forever ending the debate on how involved the federal government should be in the nation's economy.
Chris Holmes roams the Internet as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. You can catch him on his website, Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.
For more ways money can be screwed up, check out 6 Great Ways to Remind Yourself That You're Poor. Or learn about 7 Bizarre Things (And 1 Bodily Fluid) People Use as Money.