Sunday, June 1, 2003

The color and image of money

In a world full of vibrant currencies, why is American money so dull?

By Ben Fischer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In the days leading up to the U.S.-led invasion in March, deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein defiantly scorned the American leadership. But even as Saddam prepared for battle, his son Qusay was busy investing in the quintessential American product: Cash.

Using several large trucks, Qusay took almost $900 million in greenbacks from Baghdad banks and fled.

The dollar. It's the unquestioned leader of money, negotiable around the world as a symbol of the world's one remaining superpower.

And it doesn't change much.

While most other countries redesign their currencies about every 10 years, American bills are seeing significant redesigns for the first time in seven decades.

Most other countries paint bold, fanciful colors on their currencies and use them to celebrate their culture as well as their government. But American dollars remain monochromatic and ornate, with a dead politician plastered on the front and a building on the back.

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department unveiled a new $20 bill, incorporating peach, blue and green hues, the first multi-colored design since the 1800s. The $50 and $100 bills are also due for similarly subdued colorization in coming years.

It's part of a plan to foil counterfeiters by regularly changing money (the first minor wave of adjustments was in 1996).

The changes aren't dramatic. Andrew Jackson's picture is no longer in a frame, and the bills are a little more colorful. But they have the same basic look.

But as long as they're foiling counterfeiters, why doesn't the treasury department go for a total overhaul? In a world full of vibrant currencies, American bills are old-fashioned and unattractive. Hardly an image a country wants to portray.

"Bank notes are little billboards," says Gene Hessler, a College Hill resident who's among the world's experts in paper money. "It shows what the country's all about."

But others say the muted nature of the American dollar is important.

It's not that America is trying to be boring, says University of Cincinnati sociologist RhysWilliams, who studies political sociology. With the dollar circulating in every corner of the Earth, the design is meant to portray stability in an unstable world.

"It bespeaks seriousness as opposed to aesthetic values," Williams says. "We've gotten to thinking about the dollar as important and serious and containing a lot of value."

With that approach, old-fashioned isn't a bad thing, says Thomas Ferguson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

"I think it represents a very strong ethic," he says. "It's reserved. We don't need to be flashy. It represents a country and economy that has a great deal of longevity and stability."

American bank notes are meant to symbolize the strength of the American economy. But in other countries, they symbolize other things, too, says Hessler.

As an example, he points to Italy. That country's best-known artists, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, were constant fixtures on the lira before the euro took over.

For years, England only put the Queen on its coins and bank notes. But since the 1970s, others have gotten a chance. Charles Dickens spent 20 years on the back of the 10-pound note, and now Charles Darwin is there. Florence Nightingale and William Shakespeare have also been on pound notes.

If who's on the currency makes a statement for its home country, the U.S. statement is simple: all government, all the time. Presidents and other statesmen get their pictures on the front, and government buildings are slapped on the back.

American culture is ignored in favor of American politics. As it is now, historical presidents with dubious records in office - like Andrew Jackson on the $20 and Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 - are taking the place of more deserving figures, like Mark Twain or Thomas Edison.

When the current portraits were picked back in 1928, designers decided that presidents are better recognized than anyone else in American life.

That's obviously not the case any more in the television era, Williams says. But the political leaders still advertise an important message.

"At first, people weren't sure we needed a federal government," he says. "The federal government needed to convince people in far-flung places that the full faith and credit of the federal government actually mattered."

American money is also unusual because the government never takes it out of circulation, Ferguson says. Any authentic American bank note - no matter how old - can be redeemed.

Hessler understands why American money isn't totally overhauled. But he looks forward to the day someone like Twain get onto those pieces of paper in your pocket. After all, authors, inventors and musicians are as much a part of America as some presidents.

But any change will be done carefully. After all, money has a function that's more important than its look.

"We have to be able to hand a $20 bill to someone, no matter what the design, and instill in them an instantaneous, subliminal reaction," Ferguson says. "The full faith and confidence that this is a real, $20 note, a piece of U.S. currency."

The business of America is business, Calvin Coolidge once said. And while American money may see a few tweaks and twists, the look of dollar bills will remain just that: strictly business.

Cash from around the world


The new common currency of Europe has no honorary portraits on its bank notes. The images on the bills include images of windows, bridges, and gateways from various eras of European architectural history. The bridges and gateways symbolize the openness and communication between European countries and with the rest of the world.


In 2002, Japan issued three new notes, with the only portraits on them depicting cultural figures from the 1800s: Yukichi Fukuzawa, an educator, Ichiyo Higuchi, a novelist, and Hideyo Noguchi, a bacteriologist. On the backs are national symbols like Mt. Fuji and cherry trees.


Since 1977, paper money in Afghanistan has had no identifiable people on it. Currently, mosques are the only non-abstract design on the currency.


The front of Canadian bills show pictures of former Prime Ministers. The reverse side of Canadian dollars include images of boys playing hockey, soldiers commemorating Remembrance Day (the Canadian Memorial Day), and Canadian wildlife.

Former Soviet Union:

The U.S.S.R.'s currency had the same picture of Vladimir I. Lenin on all of its currency. It also had a seal depicting the Hammer and Sickle over a world map, indicating Communism's eventual goal of a world-wide revolution.


Queen Elizabeth II is on the front of all money in Britain, both coins and bills. The back of bank notes, however, feature other notable Britons. For example, author Charles Dickens was on the back of a 10-pound note for years, until replaced by Charles Darwin.

Money facts

•Two specific American Indians have appeared on American money. The new $1 gold coin has Sacagewa, a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Chief Onepapa (Running Antelope) a member of the Hunkpapa Sioux, was on the 1899 $5 silver certificate. The image on the Indian Head nickel was meant to be generic.

•No African Americans have ever been depicted.

•There are two non-presidents on current-issue paper money: Alexander Hamilton is on the $10 bill; Benjamin Franklin is on the $100.

•Until 1969, $500, $1,000 and $10,000 notes were circulated. Since then, the $100 bill has been the highest denomination.

•American money is never "de-monitized." While some rare notes and coins command higher prices from collectors, any piece of American currency can be exchanged at banks for the face value in new money.

•There is $539.89 billion circulating the world in American cash, as of July 31, 2000.

•The average lifespan of American currency: $1, 22 months; $5, two years; $10, three years; $20, four years; $50, nine years; $100, nine years.

--Source: U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

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