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Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America Paperback – 25 Mar 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (25 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014029239X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140292398
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,384,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jason Goodwin writes the best-selling Yashim detective series set in 1830s Istanbul. The fifth in the series, The Baklava Club, is out in June.
'When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin,' writes Marylin Stasio in The New York Times Book Review, 'you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.'
The Janissary Tree won the EdgarAllen Poe Award for Best Novel in 2007, and the series has appeared in over 40 languages. 
He's written award-winning books of travel and history, including Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. Time Out called it 'perhaps the most readable history ever written on anything.'

Jason's love-affair with Turkey was kindled in 1990 when he and Kate, his partner, walked 2000 miles across eastern Europe, from Gdansk to Istanbul. The award-winning 'On Foot to the Golden Horn' tells the story of that journey in a year of change, and it's available on Kindle.

Also on Kindle, The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels through India and China in Search of Tea tells the story of Jason's journey across the world of tea, its trade and history.

He lives in Dorset, on the south coast of England, with Kate and their four children.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 12 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An entertaining collection of economic anecdotes 15 Mar 2003
By Michael Oppenheim - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I don't know why books on economics try to be funny, but there is an ongoing genre. John Kenneth Galbraith's Money (1975) is a classic. Aiming for the same combination of erudition and laughs, Goodwin does a fine job.
Unlike Galbraith, Goodwin confines himself to America. He hasn't written an organized account but a collection of amusing anecdotes. But they're good history, so they remind us how much of our daily behavior would seem wildly bizarre to our ancestors.
At a simple level why should we give something valuable - say a week's work - in exchange for a piece of paper? Of course, today's money is guaranteed by the U.S. government, a reliable organization. This wasn't the case for most of U.S. history. In, say 1840, you might receive an impressive certificate for ten dollars - payable in specie ("real money," i.e. coin) at Fred's bank in Lexington, Kentucky. If you lived in Lexington and knew Fred was reliable this was acceptable. Living fifty miles away in Louisville, you might not feel so comfortable. You might insist on a few extra of Fred's dollars to compensate for the risk. Far away in New York, who knew about Fred? His dollars might be worthless or accepted at a big discount.
What a mess! In fact, state regulation existed, but it was not rigorous. Readers will chuckle as Goodwin explains how bankers in a given city would assemble a chest of hard money. On the arrival of a state inspector checking that each bank had enough specie to cover its notes, the chest would be rushed from bank to bank just ahead of the inspector. The Civil War finally forced the U.S. to issue paper money, but this was regarded as an emergency measure, and for decades afterward "greenbacks" were looked upon with deep suspicion.
Switching gears, the author discusses counterfeiting. Until the nineteenth century, paper was printed with copper plates. Copper is soft, and after five thousand impressions, the plate wore out. It had to be re-engraved. This never produced the identical image, so even good bank notes showed variations which made counterfeiting a snap. The author introduces Jacob Perkins, an American genius unknown to me and most of you. Just after 1800 he invented steel engraving. This made duplicating a bill much harder, but the book collects a dozen fascinating counterfeiting capers with an explanation of the technology behind them.
Galbraith's Money is fun to read and well organized. Goodwin's Greenback is even more fun. Well organized it isn't, but in chapter after chapter he tells wonderful stories about Americans and their attitude to paper money (Jefferson and Jackson hated it; Franklin and Hamilton loved it). We forget that gold and silver coin were scarce in the U.S. until late in the nineteenth century, so even people with a moral objection were forced to use paper money.<...
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Another entertaining and instructive book by J. Goodwin 22 Aug 2003
By Manos Lingunis - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Jason Goodwin is a polarizing author, whose books are either hated or loved by his readers. As in his best-known previous book, "Lords of the Horizons", in "Greenback" he uses a lot of wonderful anecdotes to spice up his prose and keep the reader interested. As in that book, his grasp of the essence of the subject is pretty good, although one could disagree in the details.
I am one of those readers who choose to stay away from rigorous, traditional history books because I am turned off by the stuffiness and the pedantic detailed narrative that they often provide. (I came to this end after having read a good deal of them...) I believe that the history of any subject is the sum of the personal histories of the people who participated and formed those events, famous or obscure, big or small. Jason Goodwin gives us plenty of those little personal stories and thank God for that as far as I am concerned.
I found this book very enjoyable to read and rich in information, although not as exciting as "Lords of the Horizons", so I am giving it 4 stars instead of the 5 I gave that one. I hope Jason Goodwin keeps giving us those great books on his diverse subjects and full of those colorful characters, and I am looking forward to his next book of non-sterilized history.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
BAD History - Light 9 April 2003
By Rick Mitchell - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Simply put, this is a bad book. It is poorly written and is bad history.
When the author stops digressing, he has many unimportant and trivial anecdotes about the dollar in American history.
His interpretation of American history is terrible. Just a few examples: Early in the book he cited Hawthorne, Thoreau and Twain (who lost a fortune trying to be an industrialist) to reach the conclusion that Americans did not collect and hoard money in the nineteenth century. Apparently he did not read the rest of his book which went on ad nauseum about Americans in the nineteenth century chasing and counterfeiting the dollar. In another instance he concludes that all civil rights were suspended during the civil war (not that this had anything to do with $) - completely ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court overturned Lincoln's attempt to suspend habeas corpus. Lastly (I could go on and on), he finished the book by noting that on our dollar bills are the icons that were present at the birth of our nation. This, after telling how Grant and Cleveland were on our bills! Last I looked they lived late in the next century.
I kept hoping that some pearls about the dollar would come shining through. Whatever pearls there might have been were muddied by his erroneous history and his horrible interpretations of the history he included.
I felt I wasted a good deal of time reading this book. If one wants to read the only useful part of this book, limit yourself to the chapter(s) describing the private banknotes. Nothing before or after is at all worthwhile.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Milestones in the Evolution of Value Storage 27 May 2003
By Timothy Ritter - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a very enjoyable work, well-written and researched, with numerous anecdotes and sidelights. I thought particularly strong the early chapters on colonial and post-revolution America. One sees in Jefferson an early version of a common type today: the person who is adamantly opposed to debt and credit instruments because he himself is hopelessly swamped in debt. Today's debt paranoiac shuns credit cards and deferred payment schemes of all stripes in favor of cash (paper dollars and checks drawn on bank accounts). But for Jefferson those very paper dollars and banks were suspect. For him, the only "real" money was metallic: gold or silver. The only stores of value in his opinion were coins or bullion or land.
This brought him into opposition to Hamilton, who wanted to inaugurate the new republic by assuming a huge load of debt (all the promises of payment represented by the wartime "Continentals"). Hamilton had a plan to set up a bank and issue paper money backed by gold reserves which didn't exist yet, but which he was confident could be built up by land sales and import duties. His plan, a risky scheme in Jefferson's opinion, was approved by Congress, and our little country began its life with a whopping 42 million dollar debt (p. 102). In spite of Jefferson's misgivings, the scheme worked so well that some twenty years later Jefferson himself was able to double the nation's land area by buying Louisiana from Napoleon.
I was disappointed that in this book, devoted as it is to various forms the dollar took over the years, no mention was made of the exact type of payment by Jefferson for Louisiana. Was it gold bullion? American gold dollars? Spanish gold dollars? Was there some of the paper money that he so despised? Was there a mortgage involved? Or a more racy installment plan (No interest and no payments until May 1808, or until the emperor conquers Russia, whichever comes first! Don't delay! Act now!)
"Greenback" then goes into satisfying detail on the banknote phenomenon, the system of the 19th century whereby banks printed notes (dollars, promises to pay) and either backed them up or did not back them up with gold in their vaults. As I understand it, the US government did not start printing such notes until the Civil War, and it did not become the sole legal printer of dollars until the 1920s. I would have liked more detail about how that latter change came about. What was the exact last day when you could use a dollar printed by a bank. Why did they wait so long to pass such a law, which seems perfectly natural to us now? Might the conversion have had anything to do with the subsequent worldwide depression? All fascinating questions for a follow-up volume which I hope will come from the febrile pen of Mr. Goodwin.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Great History of Paper Money 13 Dec 2010
By Mark Rice - Published on
Format: Audio Cassette
This book was my first introduction to the history of paper currency. I haven't found many books with an emphasis on the evolution of currency, and subsequently I found this book to be a unique gem. I was drawn into the story of the financial perspective of the early American culture. I enjoyed the stories of settlers who counterfeited bills and how people would try to outrun the devaluation of the currency. It is very interesting to see the origins of money and what brought about the creation of artificial currencies like paper and electronic money. I'm very glad that I read this book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading about the American Greenback.
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