Money, Money Everywhere, and Not a Coin for Change

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Any readers who were in Italy in the second half of the 1970s will remember the time when the coin crisis hit its peak. Rumour had it that a certain Far Eastern country was siphoning off all Italy’s coins to make the backs of wristwatches because the value of the metal was greater than the face value of the coin. As a matter of fact, shortage of coins was not a new problem in Italy. There are documents from the Renaissance referring to the same lack of spiccioli, or small change

By the time I arrived in Florence, in 1976, shopkeepers had resorted to the typical ci si arrangia (‘making do’) measures, offering a range of goods in lieu of change. Upim, I remember, used to hand out clothes pegs and Easter cards (after Easter, of course). Sometimes all they gave you was a blank envelope or two. The supermarket chain Esselunga produced differently coloured plastic discs that circulated only in their stores. At the bar, when you paid for your 60 lire cup of espresso or 80 lire cappuccino with a 100 lire coin (the equivalent of 5 euro cents!), you were given a few candies for the difference.

Naturally this exchange only worked in one direction. If you tried to pay for your purchase in candies or clothes pegs, you were laughed at. However, telephone tokens—gettoni—were always accepted in place of money, and they were also returned as change. While the gettoni remained the same, the value assigned to them steadily rose, according to what SIP (the telephone company) was charging for its service. When I arrived they were worth 50 lire. By the time they were phased out, at the end of 2001, and replaced by the plastic phone cards, gettoni had reached the value of 200 lire, the cost of a local phone call (or of a single scatto, the unit with which phone calls were timed).

Then one day, instead of the usual envelopes, candies, clothes pegs or greeting cards, I was handed a little assegno circolare for my change. It looked like toy money, the kind you use when you play Monopoly. Although issued by banks, the assegni circolari (popularly known as mini-assegni to distinguish them from official cheques) were not, in fact, legal tender.

Approximately 30 banks (and even some department stores) participated in this venture, printing the cheques for amounts from 50 to 350 lire. Every now and then there’d be an uproar: the assegni would be declared invalid, and no shopkeeper wanted to touch them. But when the hoo-ha died down, the assegni resurfaced and life went on as usual.

In point of fact, the banks took shameless advantage of the situation, knowing full well that hardly anyone would bother to stand in line (and lines were even longer in those days!) at the bank to cash in something worth no more than one or two cups of coffee. The banks also correctly guessed that great numbers of mini-assegni would be removed from circulation by keen collectors. Moreover, because the paper they were printed on was light and cheap, the mini-assegni that didn’t end up with collectors quickly disintegrated.

The coin crisis ended in 1978, when the Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato took over the running of the state mint. But by that time, 835 different kinds of mini-assegni had been printed, for a value of around 200 billion lire.

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This page last updated: December 9, 2007.