Thursday, May 15, 2003

New money

It's too easy being green


Hey, we Americans may be a little spoiled. Some countries even think we're arrogant. But we're not boring, are we?

Then why do we have such dreary money? The new $20 bill will have a pale touch of peach and blue. But the face is still Andrew Jackson, who moved the Indians around every time it seemed convenient for whites and under whom the Indian Removal Act became law.

We have wimped out again.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has tinkered on the new bill to be circulated this fall. Old Hickory still looks like a game show host, hair styled and moussed, slightly pained as if Don Pardo has just delivered some unwelcome news about parting gifts. The sour Ben Franklin, his lips pursed as though he needs a big dose of Mylanta, won't be considered for an overhaul until 2005.

Shaggy but spendable

"I'm disappointed, but I try to look at it from the government's point of view," says Gene Hessler of College Hill. Editor for 15 years of Paper Money, the journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors and author of several distinguished texts, he is generally regarded as the world's leading authority on U.S. currency.

He is trying to be fair.

Millions of American dollars are stuffed in mattresses all over the world. "Eastern European countries count on our money when they don't trust anything else," he says. In most countries, when a new design is introduced, the old currency is no good after a time. "So our country tries to be reassuring, change things gradually," he says. When a change was made in 1996, the U.S. spent a lot of money notifying the rest of the world that even though President Grant looked a little shaggier on our new $50 bill, he was still spendable. And the feds claimed that the bigger numbers would make it easier for people who are visually impaired.

Gene wonders why we don't just put Braille impressions on our money, which is done in almost every other country. And he says it's a shame we don't open up our most prominent portraits to include somebody besides politicians. His dream bill would picture Eleanor Roosevelt on the face and a panoramic view of Marian Anderson's 1936 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the back.

Gene's first choice for the $20 bill - which is most frequently counterfeited, most frequently dispensed by ATMs and most likely to be requested by teen-agers of their parents - would be would be Thomas Edison with pictures of his inventions. Every time a mall rat uses one, she'd get a sneaky history lesson.

The most obvious lesson of our current currency is that we do not celebrate the contributions of artists, teachers, women and people of color. Italy has featured Maria Montessori, and Belgium pictured Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone.

Gene would like to see more exciting design, more vibrant colors and the portraits people such as Sojourner Truth or Duke Ellington or Georgia O'Keefe on U.S. bills.

Something new. Something colorful. Something American.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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