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Cents And Sensibility

June 2024
6min read

Why we hate the new money.

I 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.

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.

It’s sad. The old money echoed the buzz of American commercial energy. Our new coins are bloodless. Our new bills have no artistic message, no embedded meaning, only an embedded security thread.


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