The recent news that Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the back of the British 10-pound note struck many Americans as delightfully exotic: how funny that Darwin was even on their money to begin with, and how refreshing to see him get bumped in favor of a beloved female novelist.
It also triggered a twinge of envy, as we looked down at the faded green bills in our wallets and realized that the venerable Bank of England had a far more daring approach to money design than the US Treasury.
Here in the States, there hasn’t been a meaningful rethinking of who should appear on our paper money since 1928, when early versions of the bills we still use today entered circulation. Since then, said Gene Hessler, the author of four books on the history of American currency and the former editor of Paper Money magazine, “we’ve been in a time warp.”
From the Treasury’s perspective, the rationale is that an unchanging dollar projects stability abroad. American cash is by far the most widely used around the world, and everyone from bankers in Ecuador to merchants in India trust it in part because it looks the same, year in and year out. In this sense, US money is a victim of its own success.
“There’s a certain dreary logic to [it],” said David Standish, author of “The Art of Money,” who calls the result the “dullest-looking of all the earth’s paper currency.”
But surely monotony is not the only way to convey the power of a currency. A nation’s money communicates its cultural priorities and values—it is a way for nations to send a message, as Standish put it, about “what they think is cool and important about themselves.” In this light, the fact that we’ve had the same handful of stately white gentlemen on our money for almost a century looks less like proof of seriousness than evidence of a kind of stagnation. America is known around the world for invention, entertainment, diversity, and general dynamism, and yet our money reflects none of that.
Redesigning our cash to reflect the full range of the nation’s ambitions and achievements might sound like something only other countries do. But there is precedent in American history: Just out of living memory, US paper money was amazingly varied and beautiful, celebrating icons from the American bison to the steam engine, from Native American chiefs to first lady Martha Washington.
The long resistance to change might finally be breaking down. Starting in the late 1990s, the Treasury has been tweaking the pictures and color, if not the overall look, of the classic greenback, and, by all accounts, this tinkering has done no damage to the money’s reputation abroad. Meanwhile, the hardest part of altering the world’s reserve currency—making sure everyone who’s likely to use it finds out about the change and doesn’t think the new bills are counterfeit—should be much easier now than it used to be, thanks to communication technology.
To consider a makeover for our cash is to realize what else the country could be getting out of it. Money could do more than buy things. It could serve as a reminder to Americans of what we’ve achieved and what we’re capable of—now, not just in 1776 or 1863. It could give us a chance to debate, maybe even vote on, our values as a nation. And at a time when “soft power” is increasingly important around the world, it could also be a powerful marketing tool: Just imagine if American currency, arguably the most trusted of all US exports, handled every day by millions of people around the world, also reminded them—and us—of America’s immense contributions to modern life.
Around the world, currencies are constantly being redesigned. Usually the driving force is new security measures designed to thwart counterfeiters. Other times, it happens because of economic upheaval: Brazil, for instance, used to deal with inflation by recalling its money and issuing new bills with the zeroes lopped off. Design changes can also follow political upheaval: According to Owen W. Linzmayer, publisher of a catalog called The Banknote Book that tracks new currency, companies that design and print paper money target countries that seem headed for regime change and approach them as potential clients. Sometimes new bank notes are issued almost for fun, like Russia’s special edition 100-ruble note, which is decorated with an airborne snowboarder to mark the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Almost always, however, bill design is undertaken with an eye toward coming up with a concise visual representation of a country’s identity.
As it happens, the first government-issued paper currency in the Western world was issued right here in New England, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony put out a series of bills in 1690. The figure printed on the bills—for 5 shillings, 10 shillings, 20 shillings, and 5 pounds—wasn’t a political leader, but a Native American holding a bow and arrow, part of an early version of the Massachusetts state seal. (He was uttering the words “Come over & help us,” reflecting the Colonists’ image of themselves as humanitarians.)
The Massachusetts bills marked the beginning of a lively era in the history of American currency design that would produce thousands of different varieties of notes over a little more than two centuries. In the book “100 Greatest American Currency Notes,” leading paper money specialists Q. David Bowers and David M. Sundman collected examples of bills so ornate and fanciful that it’s hard to believe they came from our country. A $3 note issued during the 1860s by Continental Bank in Boston showed a group of hunters fighting a fearsome polar bear trying to climb onto their boat. A $10 note circulated by the Treasury during the 1870s showed Pocahontas meeting a group of Europeans. A 1901-series $10 bill was emblazoned with a frontier-style bison, along with portraits of explorers Lewis and Clark.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping set of bills from America’s past is the 1896 line of silver certificates known as the “Educational Notes”—especially the $5 note known as “Electricity Presenting Light to the World,” in which a winged goddess meant to represent electricity stands in front of the Capitol Building holding up a light bulb, while more divine figures plus an eagle and a trio of horses flank her dramatically on all sides.
Unfortunately, all this variety was also the front end of a wildly variable banking system. Until the 1860s, banks all around the country were circulating their own notes, making it hard for merchants to detect counterfeit money; the federal government issued a range of bills as well. Starting in 1863, with the passage of the National Banking Act, the number of notes in circulation started to dwindle, and by the 1930s, the Federal Reserve Notes that remain today had become overwhelmingly dominant. What had once been a teeming menagerie of money had given way to a dreary monoculture.
Some might say that any attempt to redesign America’s money today would likely shrivel under the inevitable partisan rancor and conflict among interest groups. We may agree on Abraham Lincoln, but who or what else could possibly bring Americans together?
No campaign to change our paper money has gained any traction in recent years. Over the past decade, there have been a number of efforts by Republican members of Congress to get Ronald Reagan’s face on either the $10, the $20, or the $50; all have failed. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the arm of the Treasury in charge of designing and printing all our cash, routinely gets suggestions from the public, but none of these has been seriously pursued. The attention paid to bank note changes can be intense: In England, the activist who led the push for Jane Austen to appear on the 10-pound note has endured a barrage of abuse on Twitter, including death threats. In Canada last year, Mark Carney, the former central bank governor, was forced to publicly apologize for the country’s new $100 bill, after it was revealed that the generic female scientist depicted on its face was originally rendered as Asian before being changed into a white-looking person based on feedback from focus groups.
Still, if the British could put Shakespeare on their 20-pound note in 1970—and subsequently replace him with a scientist, then a composer, then the economist Adam Smith—isn’t it possible Americans could handle a currency redesign, too? Approached with the right attitude, the task of updating our money could be a chance to take stock of what we’re all proud of—an opportunity to come together around symbols of national greatness that go beyond Lincoln and Washington, and instead express a broader and more contemporary vision of the best of our country.
One option would be to take a cue from Switzerland and choose some hall-of-famers of American science and art, like Thomas Edison and Georgia O’Keeffe. Or, as a nation of vast natural resources, we could follow the example of South Africa, which recently issued a new line of bills featuring Nelson Mandela on one side and an assortment of distinctive local fauna—including elephants, lions, and rhinos—on the other. Of course, in a country with more women than men, the all-boys’ club would have to fall: An unassailable national heroine—a Rosa Parks or Amelia Earhart—would bring some much needed gender balance into our wallets.
Our money could tell stories, featuring the kind of vignettes that routinely appear on other currencies. They could be famous figures from history or just regular Americans—kids playing baseball or the Beach Boys driving around in a convertible. We could also use iconic objects and symbols to remind people, both at home and abroad, of our country’s immense contributions to civilization: a trumpet or a Les Paul guitar, for instance, to evoke America’s transformative effects on music around the world, or a child with a bandage on his arm, as a tribute to the polio vaccine.
Asked directly whether any radical design changes might ever be in the cards for the US dollar, Lydia Washington, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, didn’t say “no” flat out, but didn’t offer a lot of encouragement. It’s important to remember, Washington wrote in an e-mail, that as far as the federal government is concerned, “the redesign of currency is done primarily for security and not aesthetic reasons.”
That’s reasonable enough. But even security is opening up some new vistas—just look at the high-tech new $100 bill, slated to come out later this year, which features a blue ribbon dotted with tiny Liberty Bells that change into the number 100 when you tilt the bill. Even though it’s still a Benjamin—that is, it still has Ben Franklin’s face on it—its brash new color scheme suggests there is more room for pizzazz than we might have thought. For Gene Hessler, the former Paper Money editor, this growing experimentation represents reason to be hopeful that one day, we’ll see the look of our money evolve in truly substantive ways.
“I think the mindset of Americans is starting to change,” said Hessler, who, as a former trombone player on Broadway, dreams of a dollar bill featuring composer Aaron Copland. “I have a feeling that we’re going to break out of that time warp.”
Such change would force a reckoning with a property of paper money that most of us forget—that it’s only valuable because everyone agrees that it is. In this light, replacing George Washington with someone else would mean deciding that immutable tradition is not the only thing America can collectively hold dear. Instead, it would be an assertion that we can alter what we’ve inherited from the past, infuse it with some newer spirit, and yet value it all the same.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.