07/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gasoline Gift Cards: How Americans Invent Money

The Shady Lady Ranch brothel does it but so does the Red Cross. Hotels, car dealerships, and Taco Bells are on it as well. They all trade in gas cards: 2008's timely incentive currency. Gas cards are not new but they seem to be multiplying into all kinds of transactions. The Nevada bordello proposed the $50 gas voucher as further enticement to clients who purchased $300 worth of services (reportedly, the vouchers sold out in a week). The Red Cross plans to raffle gas cards to motivate blood donors. There's more: next August, the Desert AIDS Project will offer 50 gas cards to encourage people to undergo HIV testing, while the Tacoma Pierce County Crime Stoppers is launching a $250 gas gift card for those who help them find criminals. Some trades are even more inventive. Earlier this month, father-to-be David Partin won a $100 gas card from the Orlando, Florida Dixon & Willoughby morning radio show by offering its hosts the chance to name his unborn son. The child will be named Dixon Willoughby Partin.

Gas cards are a tangible reminder of American inventiveness when it comes to money. Before the US had a national standardized legal tender, currencies multiplied. Consider for instance the 5,000 or more distinct varieties of state bank notes -- not including additional thousands of counterfeit issues -- circulating in the nineteenth century. Merchants and bankers had to rely on bank-note directories to keep track of the unwieldy varieties of monies, as the value (as well as the size and style) of bank notes differed from bank to bank and in different states. In fact, as Bray Hammond has noted in his Bank and Politics in America, it was apparently common for bank customers to specify "in what sort of money deposits were to be withdrawn and with what sort promissory notes were to be repaid."

At times, stores, businesses, and other organizations -- including brothels -- privately issued tokens, paper notes, or coins. Americans often responded to the periodic scarcity of small change by the resourceful production of substitute currency. There are even instances of "church money;" such as the 4-pence notes issued in 1792 by a church in Schenectady, New York or the tokens distributed by the First Presbyterian Church of Albany in that same period. Most notably, merchants' copper cents -- the "hard time tokens" of the 1830s successfully served as both commercial advertising and small change. Other tokens bearing patriotic emblems or political slogans animated economic exchange with timely debates, often satirizing President Jackson's policies.

The American state worked hard to create a national legal tender. It taxed thousands of state-issued paper currencies out of existence, suppressed the private issue of tokens, paper notes or coins by stores, businesses, churches, and other organizations; and stamped out the personalization of money by individuals.

Money, or so it seemed, became exclusively a single state-issued, fungible, completely impersonal medium of market exchange, perfect for a competitive 20th century. All monies were now identical: you've heard it "a dollar is a dollar is a dollar": how much money is what matters not which money. Or as Gertrude Stein put it more succinctly: "Whether you like it or whether you do not money is money and that is all there is about it."

In the past 15 years or so the study of money has been revolutionized by behavioral economists and sociologists. A sparkling literature on "mental accounting" shows how people distinguish among kinds of monies: we label windfall income, for instance, much differently from a bonus or an inheritance, even when the sums involved are identical.

Sociologists go beyond individual mental accounts to show how people regularly define, use, and gift money differently depending on their social interactions. People earmark their monies much as they create distinctive languages for different social contexts. And we in fact respond with anger, shock, or ridicule to the "misuse" of monies for the wrong circumstances or social relations, such as offering a $1,000 bill to pay for a newspaper or tipping a restaurant's owner.

But how do we make distinctions among monies? How do we earmark them? Sometimes we do it by paying in a certain way (we give our kids an allowance) or at a certain time of the year (Christmas bonus) or spending it for a specified person (women are apparently more likely than men to spend their monies on children's needs), or for a specific purpose (migrants often demand that a particular share of the remittance money they send back home should be used for designated expenses, for example to buy clothing for a particular child). Even timing marks monies apart: a wage-earner's first paycheck is not the exact equivalent of the 50th or even the second.

We also transform objects into monies: prisoners, for instance, turn cigarettes into currency, children trade in food, cards, or playing cards. The flourishing baby-sitting co-ops use poker chips, movie tickets, or Monopoly money as their accounting media.

Sometimes we invent new currencies: chits for gamblers, food stamps for the poor, prison scrip for inmates, lunch tickets for institutional canteens, frequent flier miles, money orders, vouchers, gift certificates, affinity credit cards. The internet has its own PayPal. Ithaca minted a local "Ithaca hours" currency. Each of these invented currencies is acceptable for only some situations and social relations.

Gas gift cards thus add to our repertoire of invented, restricted currencies. Notice that they take on strikingly different meanings depending on who is offering and who's receiving the gift card. When Angela Eversole of Fort Wright, Texas allegedly accepted a $100 gas card from Kenneth Nowak in exchange for sex, she was arrested. If you offer a gas gift card to your parents for their 50th wedding anniversary, you won't land in jail but you might be considered tacky. Or try giving a gas card as a reward for your second-grader's good grades. On the other hand it may make you a hero with your older teens.

All monies are not the same. Often the crucial question is what kind of money -- not how much money. The social life of money is as busy and intriguing as its economic life.