Currency of Three

Peter Symes

A three dollar note? Who could ever consider such a thing and who could dare to issue a banknote of this denomination? The very thought of a three dollar note creates an air of disbelief in the minds of most people. To illustrate the contempt that such a note conjures, cast an eye over these phrases that were found during a search on the Internet: ‘as strange as a three dollar note’, ‘as false as a three dollar note’, ‘as useful as a three dollar note’, ‘as queer as a three dollar note’, ‘as phoney as a three dollar note’, ‘as sound as a three dollar note’, and ‘as valid as a three dollar note’. Obviously, a denomination of three dollars is regarded as unreal and something not to be trusted.

            Pictured here is a piece of ‘funny money’, lampooning President Clinton. Allegedly issued by the ‘Merry States of America’ the note depicts Clinton as Santa Claus. In an effort to give more humour to the lampoon, the note is issued in the denomination of three dollars. What better value to assign to a note that is intended to have no value! After all, who would issue such a denomination?

            As strange as it may sound, there have been a number of countries that have issued currency in the denomination of ‘three’. The best known modern issue of this denomination would probably be the 3-dollar note issued by the Cook Islands. Introduced with their first banknotes in 1987, the denomination continues to be issued and circulated. However, at the time that it was introduced, it was felt by some observers that the denomination was created as a stunt to lure collectors.

            Whether the accusation levelled at the Cook Islands is true or not, the mere accusation highlights the feelings held by many people that a note denominated in ‘three’ is not valid. Why should this be the case, when we accept a note denominated in ‘two’ with nary a thought of disregard? In many ways, a denomination of ‘three’ is little different to a note denominated in ‘two’. Assuming that there is a note or coin denominated in ‘one’, it takes three notes to make a value of ‘five’ in either combination – 1 + 1 + 3 or 2 + 2 + 1. To give change for a value of ‘ten’, the use of a denomination of ‘three’ can make it easier, with only four notes required (3 + 3 + 3 +1) as opposed to a value of ‘two’ which takes five notes. However, notes denominated in ‘three’ were not always issued as a simple alternative to notes denominated in ‘two’. While many authorities chose to issue notes denominated in 1 and 3 rather than 1 and 2, there were equally as many that issued notes denominated in 1, 2 and 3. (Of course most issuing authorities around the world do not issue notes denominated in 2 or 3, they simply have notes denominated in 1, with the next value being 5.)

            The first country to issue a note denominated in ‘three’ was Denmark, which issued a 3 Mark note in 1713. Other eighteenth century issuers were the Isles of France and Bourbon, which issued a note for 3 Livres Tournois in 1768, and Sweden, which issued a 3 Riksdaler Specie in 1777. During the nineteenth century there were numerous countries that issued notes denominated in ‘three’. Four European countries to undertake these issues were: Sweden – 3 Riksdaler Specie (1812) and 3 Riksdaler Banco (1834), Belgium – 3 Florins (1822), Finland – 3 Rubles (1840) and 3 Markaa (1860, 1864 &1866) and Russia – 3 Rubles (1843, 1860, 1887, 1895 & 1898). In Africa, the following countries issued notes denominated in ‘three’: South Africa – 3 Rix dollars (1808), Liberia – 3 Dollars (1862 & 1880) and Reunion – 3 Francs (1884).

            Countries in South America that undertook similar issues were: Colombia – 3 pesos (1820 &1860), Surinam – 3 Gulden (1826 & 1829), British Guiana – 3 Joes (1830), Danish West Indies – 3 Dalere (1849) and Paraguay – 3 Pesos (1860 & 1865). In North America the following were issued: Cuba – 3 pesos (1872), Texas – 3 dollars (1838 & 1842), and the USA – 3 cents (1863). In Asia, three countries chose to use this denomination: Thailand – 3 Tamlungs (1850 & 1853), China – 3 Taels (1853) and Iran – 3 Tomans (1890). These short lists of eighteenth and nineteenth century issues of notes denominated in ‘three’ indicate an extremely limited use of notes issued in that denomination. Certainly, in the total note issues of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these notes played an incredibly small part.

            In the twentieth century, the use of notes denominated in ‘three’ was just slightly less restricted. Danzig issued a 3-mark note in 1914, Germany issued a 3-franc note in 1915 and German South West Africa issued a 3-mark note in 1916. As can be seen in the list of nineteenth-century issues, Russia was already a prolific issuer of 3-ruble notes and this continued into the twentieth century. Notes of 3 rubles were issued from 1905 to 1922 then 1934 to 1991, with a break for the issue of 3-chervontsa notes in 1924, 1932 and 1937. During the First World War, between 1915 and 1917, Russia also issued 3-kopek notes in the form of stamp money. During the twentieth century, the use of notes denominated in ‘three’ became almost exclusively to be issued in countries that fell under the influence of the Russians. Issues that were influenced by Russia can be split into two groups – those issued during the Russian hegemony and those issued by independent states after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

            Notes issued under Russian influence were: Estonia – 3 Marka (1919), Georgia – 3 rubles (1919), Latvia – 3 Rubli (1919), Mongolia – 3 dollars (1924) and 3 tugrik (1939 to 1981), Tannu Tuva – 3 Lan (1924), 3 Rubles (1934) and 3 Aksha (1935 & 1940), Ukraine – 3 Rubles (1941) and 3 Chervontsa (1941), Bulgaria – 3 Leva (1951), Romania – 3 Lei (1952 & 1966), Czechoslovakia – 3 Koruny (1953 & 1961) and Albania – 3 Leke (1964). Countries that issued notes after the breakup of the Soviet Union were: Lithuania – 3 Talonas (1991), Ukraine – 3 Karbovantsi (1991), Belarus – 3 Rublei (1992), Georgia – 3 Laris (1993), Kazakhstan – 3 Tenge (1993), and Uzbekistan – 3 Sum (1993 & 1994).

            Twentieth century issuers of notes denominated in ‘three’ who were not under Russian influence were Taiwan, who had an emergency issue of 3 Sen in 1918, China, who issued a 3-Tael note in 1953, the Bahamas, who issued a 3-dollar note in 1965, 1968 & 1984, and the Cook Islands, who issued their 3-dollar notes in 1987 and 1992. Final mention of twentieth-century issuers goes to Cuba, who issued a 3-peso note in 1983 and 1995. Was Cuba influenced by the Russians, or were they re-introducing a note they had previously issued in the nineteenth century?

            The use of notes denominated in ‘three’ by Russia has its origins in the currency that circulated in that country in the first half of the nineteenth century. During the reign of Nicholas I Russia introduced a 1½-ruble coin in an effort to integrate the currency of Russia and its Polish possessions. The coin was originally issued with two values: 1½ rubles and 10 zlotys. It appears that other denominations followed the pattern of being multiples of 10-zlotys and from 1828 to 1845 platinum coins denominated as 3, 6 and 12 rubles circulated along side traditional silver rubles. By the time a series of notes was introduced in 1840, the denominations were well entrenched and a 3-ruble note was introduced to match the value of the lowest valued platinum coin. Hence forth, notes denominated in ‘three’ have been issued constantly in Russia and the USSR. Introduced prior to the era of decimalization, 3-ruble notes have continued to find their niche in the modern world.

            It is intriguing that very few of the countries that issued banknotes denominated in ‘three’ also issued banknotes denominated in ‘30’ or ‘300’. It seems logical that if a denomination of ‘three’ is chosen for the lower denomination notes, that notes denominated in ‘30’ or ‘300’ might also be issued. However, there are only several examples of where this has happened. Cuba issued notes denominated in 300 pesos from 1857 to 1887 and only introduced their 3-pesos note in 1872. Sweden issued several notes in different denominations of 300 during the 1660s, Denmark issued a 30-Rigsdaler note in 1737 after issuing its 3-Mark note in 1713 and the Isles of Bourbon and France issued a 300-Livres-Tournois note in 1788, twenty years after it issued the 3 Livres Tournois. Russia issued 30-Ruble notes in 1896 and 1919, but the only country that has made an issue of notes that contain a range of similar denominations is Georgia, which issued notes denominated in 3, 3000 and 30,000 Laris between 1993 and 1994.

            This is not to say that notes denominated in 30 and 300 were not more widely issued. The Bank of England issued 30- and 300-pound notes for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, France issued numerous 300-livres notes during the eighteenth century, as did the Netherlands Indies.

            The notes denominated in ‘three’, that are listed above, are predominantly issued by recognized issuing authorities. However, if private issues from mining, trading and railway companies, notgeld, and issues by private banks are taken into account, the use of notes denominated in ‘three’ becomes much more widespread. Not surprisingly, a lot of private issues in Russia and Eastern Europe were denominated in ‘three’ and private banks in China are known to have issued notes in this denomination. The colonial United States was a hotbed of 3-dollar note issues and the tradition continued well into the nineteenth century, when a number of private banks prepared issues in this denomination.

            While some countries have recently lost their notes denominated in ‘three’, due to inflation, it is also apparent from the issues listed above that many issuing authorities flirted with this denomination for only a short period. Notes denominated in ‘three’ have generally been, apart from Russia, a denomination used in only one or two note issues before being dropped in future issues. In the case of the modern nations formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the departure of this odd denomination from their issues may be symbolic of their break from the Soviet Union. Despite its minimal use of the last 350 years, notes denominated in ‘three’ now appear more likely to accumulate in albums of thematic collectors than to make an appearance in new banknote issues. Perhaps it is time that the Reserve Bank of Australia considered an issue of a 3-dollar note. Such a move is not an entirely unworthy or untested idea and it is sure to raise interest, as accusations of Russian influence will surely abound!

This article was completed in March 2004
© Peter Symes