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In the beginning, of course, Hawaiians didn’t have any money. They didn’t even know what money was. They simply traded things, bartered, to avail themselves of the things they needed. Even after explorers started arriving in the 1700s, barter still was they only way they could obtain staples.
Gourds were the most valuable commodities. They could be used for food storage and as drinking cups, eating utensils, water containers, rattles for children and hula dancers, and containers for holding belongings. When a young woman set a goal of marrying the richest man in the community, she checked out his garden for gourds.
Other garden products became valuable as more and more ships reached island shores. Hawaiians met the ships with fresh yams, vegetables, breadfruit, pork and fresh water. The sailors would trade part of the ships cargos: tools, metal, cloth, household goods and furniture. (It wasn’t until the missionaries arrived from New England in the 1800s that Hawaiians saw their first combs, school books, paper and other man-made items.)
Nails became a form of money. Early Hawaiians had never seen metal and had no idea of its many uses. When exposed to nails, they discovered that nails could be fashioned into fishhooks, with which they could catch a lot more fish than they could with their old-fashioned bone fishhooks.
Later, sandalwood became the currency of choice because, when trade began between Hawaii and China, the Chinese couldn’t get enough sandalwood for their aromatic chests and boxes that sold for very high prices. In return for the prized wood, Hawaiians received brocades and silks, dishes, spices, teakwood furniture and firearms.
The ali`i of the day demonstrated their status by wearing magnificent yellow and red feather cloaks and helmets. The feathers from certain birds used for the garments became virtually priceless. Only the Aii`i could wear the garments, but commoners could catch the birds and grab the feathers, and the feathers became common currency.
Eventually, the value of silver and gold was recognized in Hawaii. Silver came in the form of Spanish pesetas or Spanish-American dollars, half-dollars and reals. Unfortunately, commoners weren’t allowed to have silver and gold; only the Aili`i could play that game.
In 1847, King Kamehameha III issued an official copper cent, which could be used as currency by anyone. By 1883, the Hawaiian coinage and money system was made to conform with that of the U.S. gold standard and money had to be earned, not grown, picked or plucked.
Modern times had arrived.