The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Alternative Currencies: Ithaca Hours

The Ithaca hour is a local currency used in Ithaca, New York and is the oldest and largest local currency system in the United States that is still operating. One Ithaca hour is valued at US$10 and is generally recommended to be used as payment for one hour’s work, although the rate is negotiable.

Ithaca hours are not backed by national currency and cannot be freely converted to national currency, although some businesses may agree to buy them. Hours are printed on high-quality paper and use faint graphics that would be difficult to reproduce, and each bill is stamped with a serial number, in order to discourage counterfeiting.

Ithaca hours were started by Paul Glover in November 1991. The system has historical roots in scrip and alternative and local currencies that proliferated in America during the Great Depression. While doing research into local economics during 1989, Glover had seen an “Hour” note 19th century British industrialist Robert Owen issued to his workers for spending at his company store. After Ithaca hours began, he discovered that Owen’s Hours were based on Josiah Warren’s “Time Store” notes of 1827.

Within a few days, Glover had designs for the hour and Half hour notes. He established that each hour would be worth the equivalent of $10, which was about the average hourly amount that workers earned in surrounding Tompkins County, although the exact rate of exchange for any given transaction was to be decided by the parties themselves. At GreenStar Cooperative Market, a local food co-op, Glover approached Gary Fine, a local massage therapist, with photocopied samples. Fine became the first person to sign a list formally agreeing to accept hours in exchange for services. Soon after, Jim Rohrrsen, the proprietor of a local toy store, became the first retailer to sign-up to accept Ithaca hours in exchange for merchandise.

When the system was first started, 90 people agreed to accept hours as pay for their services. They all agreed to accept hours despite the lack of a business plan or guarantee. Glover then began to ask for small donations to help pay for printing hours.

Fine Line Printing completed the first run of 1,500 hours and 1,500 Half hours in October 1991. These notes, the first modern local currency, were nearly twice as large as the current Ithaca hours. Because they didn’t fit well in people’s wallets, almost all of the original notes were removed from circulation.

The first issue of Ithaca Money was printed at Our Press, a printing shop in Chenango Bridge, New York, on October 16, 1991. The next day Glover issued 10 hours to Ithaca Hours, the organization he founded to run the system, as the first of four reimbursements for the cost of printing hours. The day after that, October 18, 1991, 382 hours were disbursed and prepared for mailing to the first 93 pioneers.

On October 19, 1991, Glover bought a samosa from Catherine Martinez at the Farmers’ Market with Half hour #751—the first use of an hour. Several other Market vendors enrolled that day. During the next years more than a thousand individuals enrolled to accept hours, plus 500 businesses. Stacks of the Ithaca Money newspaper were distributed all over town with an invitation to “join the fun.”

A Barter Potluck was held at GIAC on November 12, 1991, the first of many monthly gatherings where food and skills were exchanged, acquaintances made, and friendships renewed. In 2002, a one-tenth hour bill was introduced, partly due to the encouragement and funding from Alternatives Federal Credit Union and feedback from retailers who complained about the awkwardness of only having larger denominations to work with; the bills bear the signatures of both hours’ president Steve Burke and the president of AFCU.

While the Ithaca hour continues to exist, in recent years it has fallen into disuse. Media accounts from the year 2011 indicate that the number of businesses accepting hours has declined. Several reasons are attributed to this. First has been the founder, Paul Glover, moving out of town. While in Ithaca, Glover had acted as an evangelist and networker for hours, helping spread their use and helping businesses find ways to spend hours they had received. Secondly, a general shift away from cash transactions towards electronic transfers with debit or credit cards. Glover has emphasized that every local currency needs at least one full-time networker to “promote, facilitate and troubleshoot” currency circulation.

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