Visualizing the History of Debt
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A History of Debt

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Would you take my wampum in exchange for your house? In the 1620's, the Dutch would have accepted the sacred beads like currency. Debt began way before the Native Americans found their own currency, though.

Find out what Hammurabi thought of debt, and when human cages were in vogue for debtors’ jail. These facts will make you think twice before filing personal bankruptcy.

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A History of Debt

Throughout history, man struggled with debt. Before recorded contracts, people used anything of value as currency.


Most people use credit to purchase things too expensive to buy with cash on hand.

Debt is just not smart. Many people are broke because of debt.

in 2010, the U.S. Credit Bureau reported 73.3% have mortgage debt, 96.7% have credit card debt, and 56% have car payments.

Average credit card debt per household: $15,700

One in 10 consumers has more than 10 credit cards. The average number is four.

Currently, $1.177 trillion exists in credit card debt.

The national credit card debt equals: $21,827,510,600.

Some good news: Credit card delinquencies have decreased 17%.

The inventor of the modern credit card was John Biggins in 1946.

19th Century

Up to the mid 1800s in the US, you could go to prison for failing to pay your debts.

Many people died in debtors' jails for debts as little as fifty cents.

Gaols (pronounced 'jails') translate to 'human cage'.

18th Century

The "$" symbol derived from the "Pillars of Hercules" symbol, which was two columns and a scroll. Emperor Charles V of Germany used the symbol on the "Pillar dollar". Over time, it simplified to the symbol used today.

17th Century

IN 1641, Pilgrims consolidated their debts to London creditors through installments or "enstallments".

Harvard College accepted wampum as payments for tuition until 1641.

Massachusetts allowed traders to accept wampum as lawful currency in 1637.

Native Americans used wampum, or "sacred shell beads", for currency. Trade using wampum began as early as the 1620s by the Dutch with the local tribes.

Ancient Times

Some religions argued against debt. Islam forbade lending with interest. The Catholic Church prohibited lending with interest throughout the Middle Ages. Jewish Law prevented charging family interest - but strangers could be charged.

The words 'sin' and 'debt' are the same in Arabic, so the Lord's Prayer can be read as "Redeem us from our debts, as we redeem our debtors."

During the reign of Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 BC) the first regulations of debt and credit were developed. Payments by draft against deposit (early checks) were frequent, and were treated as negotiable.

Some of the earliest uses of currency date back to 2,500 BC, when silver, in bar form, substituted for barley payments.

Interest was rarely charged. However, if you did not pay money back as agreed, interest was charged at high rates.

Over 1,200 years after Hammurabi laid down the law, the first widely-accepted coins were minted. The Athenian "silver owls", first minted in 413 BC, remained in use for over 600 years.

This infographic was published by Total Bankruptcy.

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