Cents And Sensibility

PrintPrintEmailEmailI was once in a grocery store in Italy, fumbling through a mound of pocket change to pay for my lunch. The old woman at the cash register reached across the counter and pointed helpfully at the elegant brass-inlaid 500-lire coin that I had been saving since early in my trip. No bigger than a quarter, it looked like a penny framed in a silver grommet. Embarrassed to be a nuisance, but reluctant to part with it, I gestured the coin away with an explanatory “no, no— bella, bella l” Puzzled at first, the woman then chuckled and nodded confirmingly as I counted out the exact amount, put my prize back in my pocket, and said good-bye. She smiled at me with an air of satisfaction, like a hostess pleased by a compliment.

Currencies touch feelings of national pride. Until the new $20 bill appeared more than two years aao, I had always liked American bills; they were black-and-white classics in an age of special effects. By now, I most Americans have seen the new $5, $10, and $20 notes, part of a series that marks the first major change in our paper currency in 70 years. The new $100 bill arrived in 1996, joined by the fifty a year later; the ten and five appeared last May. Some have hardly noticed, but American coins are changing too, and not for the better.

We are so accustomed to our coins and dollars that we fail to see them for what they really are: sculptures and engravings. I tell my freshman art students that with as little as $36.41, they can rightly regard themselves curators of modest collections. The 1990 Washington quarter was a pedagogical model of bas-relief sculpture. By 1998 it had become a hodgepodge of beginner’s errors.

American numismatic history has seen its ups and downs. Until 1792 America produced no federal currency, relying instead on a variety of foreign issues. Creation of our own currency prompted philosophical debates on the adoption of national symbols. Early on, it was agreed to abstain from presidential images. While some found the eagle inappropriately regal, it prevailed over other, less virile candidates, such as Beniamin Franklin’s turkey.

Theodore Roosevelt believed that currency, like everything else, was a matter of national prestige. At the turn of the century, the United States was coming into its own. and Roosevelt wanted American money to reflect his country’s new status as a world power. He urged adoption of a national fine arts commission, a committee of presidential appointees that to this day advises the government in matters of art, architecture, and currency design. He recruited artists from outside the mint by offering handsome commissions. His prize conscript was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America’s pre-eminent neoclassical sculptor, who brought some of his most gifted students aboard, among them James Fraser. Roosevelt shared ideas with the artists and bullied conservative elements within the Treasury when artistic goals conflicted with the department’s practical agenda. He delighted in correspondence with Saint-Gaudens, to whom he described his coin project as his “pet crime.”

It dawned a numismatic golden age. The creative influence of the Roosevelt years crested at the end of his Presidency and ripples on into the twenty-first century. Some of today’s coins still feature his artists. Our oldest coin, the Abraham Lincoln penny, was issued in 1909 on the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. It was the first federal coin to feature a President, clearing the way for others to follow. The Washington quarter first appeared in 1932; the 1938 Jefferson nickel retired the buffalo nickel, James Eraser’s portrait composite of three Native Americans and a bison from the New York City Zoo.

The portrait suggests a man more voyeuristic than presidential.

Teddy Roosevelt’s numismatic renaissance relied on talent from outside the U.S. Mint, but throughout history artists of all sorts have influenced American money in many ways. Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished painting of George Washington is the basis for the iconic image on the dollar bill. His Jefferson peers dejectedly from the unsung two-dollar bill. The portrait sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s busts of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are definitive references for coins bearing their profiles.

Security concerns prompted the new generation of paper money. The Secret Service is, to the surprise of many, a division of the Treasury Department. The agency was created to combat counterfeiting back in 1865, when an incredible one-third of all currency in circulation was fake.

Security features on the new bills are quite flashy. The “20” on the lower right of the new Jackson is printed in color-shifting ink: From the front it appears green; from the side, black. To the far right of the engraved portrait is a watermark portrait, visible when lit from behind. When viewed the same way, a vertically embedded security thread to the far left of the portrait identifies the denomination (“USA TWENTY”) and shows a flag bearing a “20” where the stars normally reign. By ultraviolet light, the thread within the $20 note glows green. Other changes, such as the jumbo ”20” on the bottom right of the reverse side, are for the approximately 10 million Americans with poor vision.