The world's earliest banknotes
Records exist of banking facilities in Babylon 4,000 years ago, and there is evidence that the Chinese, Greeks and Romans had banking facilities long before the Christian era.
- The first true paper money appears in China. Paper money appeared in Europe several centuries later.
- The Bank of England began issuing banknotes in exchange for deposits. The banknote also had spaces for a handwritten date, number, signature and the name of the payee. The banknotes showed the figure of Britannia but had few other decorative features.
New Zealand's first banknotes
In Aotearoa New Zealand, paper money arrived with the Europeans. In 1924, trading banks in New Zealand agreed on a standard design for banknotes.
The Reserve Bank issues banknotes
By the 1920s, there was a general push to set up a central bank that would issue a single national currency. Talk of establishing a Reserve Bank in New Zealand went on through the 1920s.
- The first Reserve Bank of New Zealand was set up with the sole authority to issue New Zealand’s currency.
- Work on new banknote designs begins.
- The Reserve Bank of New Zealand issues the first banknotes in August 1934.
A timeline of New Zealand banknotes
1 August 1934 — series 1
The first banknote was signed by the first Governor of the Reserve Bank, Leslie Lefeaux. Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited, London printed the banknotes.
These first banknotes were meant to be temporary as they were designed in a hurry amid heated debate over what they should look like. In the end, they included features of banknotes already in circulation—a Kiwi, the Arms of New Zealand, a sketch of Mitre Peak and a portrait of King Tāwhaio, the second Māori king.
The colours of the original banknotes were similar to the previous trading banknotes. All the notes carried the same design, but different colours distinguished the denominations. Notes of 10/- (10 shillings), £1 (1 pound), £5 and £50 were coloured orange, mauve, blue-green and red respectively. The banknotes were all the same size (7" x 3½").
The second series was issued on 6 February 1940.
The design and colours for the 10/- and £50 banknotes were changed. A portrait of Captain James Cook replaced that of King Tawhiao. A green-coloured £10 banknote was also introduced at this time.
These banknotes stayed in circulation until the change to decimal currency in 1967.
10 July 1967 — change to decimal currency
Pre-decimal currency was relatively complex. Pounds were divided into 20 shillings or 240 pence. This resulted in 12 pence to the shilling. Guineas were worth slightly more than a pound but were not in common use. People got used to doing the fractions, but it was complex and the system of 100 cents to the dollar was simpler.
In 1963, the government decided to decimalise, with the changeover, dubbed ‘Decimal Currency’ (DC) day, set for 10 July 1967.
There were public discussions over what the new decimal money might be called. Words such as ‘kiwi’ and ‘zeal’ were proposed to avoid confusion with ‘dollar’, which most people at the time associated with American money.
In the end, though, the word ‘dollar’ was selected, and ‘Mr Dollar’ became the symbol of the change.
A lot of work went into changing from imperial currency, including a huge publicity campaign. A series of TV ads introduced the concepts to New Zealand viewers.
Now it can be told
This footage tells the story of the distribution of currency for decimalisation on 10 July 1967. $120m of currency, weighing 730 tonnes was sent to nearly 600 bank branches around the country by plane, ferry, truck and train between April and June 1967 as part of ‘Operation Overlander’. Everything went without a hitch and not one cent was lost!
The third series was issued on 10 July 1967. These notes all featured HM Queen Elizabeth II on the front. The Series 3 banknotes were our first decimal currency.
The fourth series was issued in 1981, largely because of a change in printer.
Previously our banknotes had been printed by Thomas De La Rue and Company of London. In 1979, we put the next year's note order out to international tender. The contract went to Bradbury Wilkinson and Company (NZ) Ltd who had recently built a banknote printing plant in Whangarei.
The change of printer was an opportunity to redesign the banknotes because of the need for new plates to be engraved. The most obvious change was an updated portrait of the Queen.
In the 1980s, it became clear a new banknote was needed between the $20 and the $100. We introduced a $50 banknote at the end of 1983.
In mid-1991, we changed the design and security features of New Zealand banknotes. This was the first complete redesign since we introduced decimal currency 24 years earlier.
After consulting widely with the public, we issued a new series of banknotes with distinctly New Zealand designs.
We issued our sixth series of banknotes in 1999. These were printed for the first time on polymer. Polymer notes are more durable. They also included windows for extra security.
The Series 6 notes kept the same images and general designs as Series 5, with slight changes to include the window security features.
The seventh series was issued in 2015 and is currently in circulation. It has the same images and general designs as Series 6, but includes many high-tech upgrades to security features.