Sunday, August 31, 1997
Artful, subtle lessons
of the dollar bill

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Have you seen one of the new Ben Franklin bills? When you do, notice that Ben looks pretty crabby. His lips are pursed like he needs a big dose of Mylanta or his gout is bothering him. Is that really an image you want to see if you're lucky enough to be looking at $100?

Why not give somebody else a chance?

How about Clara Barton? She was a nice-looking woman with a good smile. Not to mention that she quit her job as a government bureaucrat to dodge bullets while tending wounded Union soldiers. Then she founded the Red Cross.

This is just a suggestion.

If you would prefer to look at an educator when you open your wallet, you might like Nannie Helen Burroughs, a woman told she was ''too black to teach'' in a Washington, D.C., public school in 1909. So she started one of her own.

She could replace, for instance, Andrew Jackson - who appears to suffer from mousse abuse. Not only is Ms. Burroughs neatly coiffed, but she looks fabulous in a hat. And she beat some terrible odds.

Italy likes Maria Montessori so much that they put her on the 1,000-lire bill, and Ireland's 5-pound note is a serene portrait of Mother Catherine McAuley. We honor the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, of course, by naming a perfectly wonderful high school in College Hill after her.

But no money.

Sexist and boring

There's not a single woman's picture on any U.S. paper currency. This is not counting pretend women like Lady Liberty. Florence Nightingale was on a Bank of Georgia note before the Civil War. Martha Washington was on a bill twice, and Pocahontas once. But not lately.

Compared with other countries, our money is not only sexist but boring. Green and black. Costa Rica's money, for instance, pictures orchids and lively market scenes.

I am getting all this information from Gene Hessler, who is a very big deal, numismatically speaking. He grew up in Mount Healthy, was a a professional trombonist in New York City and began studying currency 35 years ago. He wisely returned here after retiring.

Editor of Paper Money, the journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors, and author of six books on the topic, he is generally regarded as the top authority on U.S. paper. It is more than a hobby, less than a religion. We'll call it a passion.

''Look at it,'' he says, pulling out dozens of colorful, beautifully engraved foreign notes. ''It's art.''

During September and October in the third-floor art and music section of the main library, 800 Vine St. downtown, you can see what this man is so excited about. He has put together an exhibit from two dozen countries, each honoring a different woman.

He also will be at the library at 2 p.m. on Oct. 4 to lecture and answer questions.

''I don't collect money,'' he says. ''I collect information.''

Sneaky teaching

He especially likes talking to students. ''Kids who have no interest in history or geography are fascinated by paper money. They ask questions and sometimes even puzzle out foreign words by looking at the money. They learn without knowing that's what they're doing.''

It sounds very sneaky to me.

I'll bet Germany and Israel and Mexico and Switzerland, which picture accomplished women on their deutsche marks and pounds and pesos and francs, are brainwashing their children.

Television. Billboards. Baseball cards. Newspapers. Messages subtle and not so subtle. And money, those exquisitely engraved images we see every day. Wouldn't it be simple to celebrate Sandra Day O'Connor or Harriet Tubman or Eleanor Roosevelt on some of our money.

Wouldn't that be an important lesson? Or we can teach our girls that if they work hard and study and are very successful, they might grow up to be a man.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.