Cents And Sensibility


Take a new twenty and an old one, and compare the engravings side by side; you’ll likely be surprised by how much the two designs differ. In the old portrait, Jackson is the essence of dignity. The populist warrior-madePresident holds himself statuesquely, his eyes fixed in implacable expression on a distant and meaningful horizon. His chiseled head and pyramidal shoulders charge the air around him with personal energy. In comparison, the new Jackson appears neutered and uncertain. The world he occupies is flat and airless, and the unfortunate framing of his face suggests a man more voyeuristic than presidential.


The old portrait has a physical center of gravity. An orbital space encircles the head. Shadows are used sparingly but to good effect: The vertical crescent on the extreme right side of Jackson’s face foreshortens the far cheekbone; stabs of dark beneath the nose and brow punctuate his expression. His unruly hair is supported from below by a tangible cranium. The location of the light source is revealed by the shadow cast under the nose and by the tonal transitions on the face, which brighten as surfaces advance toward the viewer.

No spatial consistency governs the new portrait. The skull feels absent beneath the hair mass, which, in a gluttony of detail and texture, forms into erect panels like the one at his middle forehead. The jawline is flattened, compressing the entire lower quarter of the face. The lighting is disorganized; light tones and halftones collect in puddles.


The old design is a romantic fugue of banners and coils. Above, “ UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ” billows majestically, unfurled by the same wind that has just swept through Jackson’s hair and against which, it seems, our seventh President clutches his cape. At the sides, mannerist scrolls brace the edges with taut, symmetrical force. Architectural spirals complete the triad below, giving way to the capitalized “ TWENTY DOLLARS .” The old bills are lush with suggestive reminders of the American landscape. The new series merely offers perfunctory trees and shrubs around the White House.

The old bills play on chord structures of silvery gray, in a winding counterpoint of shape and line. Lyrical curves meet jagged angles in a space that is as sculptural as it is graphic; the old bills are a game of chess, right down to the seals and serial numbers in exact graphic stalemate to the left and right of the presidential portrait.

Despite efforts to assist the visually impaired, the numerals on the corners of the new design are less readable than those on the old. Even the spirographic patterns lacing the edges of the old printing are clearer and more elegantly gauged than the same marginalia on the new; on our updated notes they are muddy and out of balance, causing some to cringe at their likeness to play money. Designed to thwart counterfeiting, the new currency looks counterfeit itself.


And how could it be otherwise? Though the Treasury, Secret Service, Federal Reserve, and Bureau of Engraving spent two years developing the new twenty, a Treasury official admitted there was “no designer as such.” It shows. The new five, ten, and twenty are painfully generic. The old series had thematic variety: The Jackson twenty was rakish and Romantic; the Washington dollar was solemn and austere. Beyond aesthetic value, it offered a practical benefit: It helped us tell them apart.

Our coins are suffering a similar ill fate. In January 1999, a new series of quarters entered circulation, each one an homage to one of our 50 states. Five new coins will be minted annually over a 10-year period, issued in the order of statehood.

Compare a new quarter to one issued in 1990 or earlier. The 1990 Washington portrait is a complete volume, suggesting a form with an inside and an outside. Surface planes rise and retire on an egglike mound that crests above the ear, in a subtle peak, vivid to the touch. Illuminated from the left, the front plane of the face is a unified band of light, the surface from cheekbone to ear lies in halftone, and the back of the head in shadow.

The new quarter is thinner. Washington’s head is shallow and sags inward, like a collapsed circus tent with an audience trapped beneath. Unregulated light scatters from chin to crown, nullifying the form. Washington’s hair has become a plate of noodles, his neck an aluminum can on a busy high- way. Inscriptions and dates clutter the front and back. The typography is dull and unvaried, and the spaces between elements poorly related. While it is cheaper to mint thinner coins, the resulting imagery suffers. Our new coins look like car-wash tokens.

By the Treasury’s estimate, the old paper currency will disappear in about two and a half years. For those of us mourning the transition, a visit to a cash machine becomes a health report on a failing friend: What’s the ratio of old bills to new? How are the old issues holding up? I find myself spending the earlier bills last, as if that will make a difference.