The currency of ideas

As plastic money increasingly takes the place of hard cash, Peter Hall finds currency at a low ebb, with new bank notes reflecting their nation’s bureaucratic insecurities

This being the sauna period of the East Coast summer, those who carry money on their person (as opposed to transporting it in a bag) become quite accustomed to removing limp, soggy dollar bills from their wallets and offering them, like deflated balloons to grimacing bartenders, taxi drivers and cashiers. It’s ugly, but it’s an experience we will cherish in years to come. Money increasingly disappears from our lives without our ever having seen it. Direct debit cards are finally catching on in supermarkets, on-line banking has arrived, even Web-based airline reservations are secure enough to be the most sensible alternative to overwhelmed travel agents. Where money hasn’t been replaced by numbers on a screen, it’s been replaced by plastic. Microchip-enabled “stored-value” cards made their debut a couple of years ago. The New York subway this month began offering considerable discounts to those riders who use plastic Metrocards instead of coin-tokens, and telephone cards have become more reliable than bent coins and public phones.

As if in anticipation of its own demise, the currency design is losing its panache. Enough criticism has been hurled at the Belgian-designed Euro notes to have propelled its creator to his knees, begging for mercy. Let me add that the vague, imaginary architectural features, insipid colours and preponderance of stars and maps in the notes convey just the right impression for the European Union, a bureaucratic body whose priorities are financial and whose personality is legal.

The US, too, has been undertaking a quiet redesign of its currency – for the first time since 1929. The new-look $100 and $50 bills, issued by the US Treasury in 1996 and 1997, and the forthcoming $20 bill, due this autumn, are simultaneously saturated with all the tradition of the venerable greenback and every technological innovation available to foil the wily counterfeiter. In addition, the Treasury has finally conceded that, to tourists and the partially sighted, all those green notes of different denominations do all look the same, and has condescended to stamp huge black Helvetica numbers on the backs, as well as beef up the portraits of dead presidents. The resulting $20 bill is an alarming montage of special effects and anachronistic features, implying either that the designers were having an awful fight or a really good laugh. The illustration of President Andrew Jackson has been redrawn and disproportionately enlarged so that his forehead appears big enough to host a skiing contest. This seems especially confounding given that Jackson was not an egghead president but an injun-bashing, Brit-beating, man-of-the-American-people general, known to his soldiers as Old Hickory. The only clue to the apparition of this upper cranial protuberance is that when Jackson was 14, he was wounded in the head by a belligerent British officer. Are the Treasury’s illustrators implying that Young Hickory’s contusion never underwent a corresponding diffusion?

In some ways, the redesigned dollar is as much a reflection of its issuing nation as the Euro represents its own corpus bureaucraticus. The dollar design reveals a patriotic nation proud of its history, technological prowess and economic might, but somewhat insecure about the rest of the world. Thus the mighty green $100 – the world’s most widely circulated note (and most favoured by counterfeiters) – bears embellishments evoking the more overtly militaristic state-issued designs that preceded it in the last century, coupled with an awkward concession to European socialism (the Helvetica numerals) and extraordinary security measures: microprinted lettering, a second watermarked portrait, colour-shifting ink – it looks green from the front and black when viewed at an angle – and a security thread that glows under UV light like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre.

Counterfeit notes totalled $136 million worldwide in 1997, but 75 per cent of that haul was seized prior to circulation. At the end of the American Civil War, by contrast, one third of all US paper money was counterfeit. These were terrible times for money, but great times for design; 1600 private banks were issuing paper money in 1936, with over 30 000 design varieties in circulation.

Just as European nations are to relinquish their rich array of national currencies for the Euro, so US banks and states gave up theirs for the sake of stability and consistency. The next phase in the numismatic cycle should be interesting, as the notes are superseded by an array of plastic cards bearing the multifaceted stamps and logos of their issuing organisations; Visa, Mastercard, Metrocard, AT&T, BT and so on, not to mention Joe’s Bar and Jackson’s Taxis.

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