As I write this story, Americans are observing Presidents Day, a federal holiday honoring all of the nation’s past presidents. It would be easy to create a collage of the best-known presidents’ faces by simply opening one’s wallet. Most banknotes circulating in the U.S. today bear the face of an early former President or other famous founding father. For the past century, Politico points out, “U.S. banknotes have featured a static set of Founding Fathers and presidents, government buildings and national memorials. This 20th-century consistency created the illusion that significant design alterations would sever our currency’s ties to its past.”
To be clear, the US has been diligent about adding new-and-improved security features into its banknotes, in an effort to fight fraud. But somewhere along the way, the artwork on our currency went stale.
Enter President Joe Biden, who recently announced the revival of Obama-era plans to redesign the $20 bill, replacing the portrait of President Andrew Jackson with that of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Some Americans consider this move a break with tradition, but they would be mistaken. “In the 1800s, currency redesigns were not at all uncommon. In fact, banknotes changed regularly, and featured a vibrant range of people, scenes and symbols. The United States did not have standardized designs depicting only a handful of political figures until the 1920s,” Politico explains.
Our forefathers understood that designs could help inspire a sense of unity among Americans. To that end, early banknotes visually depicted the breadth of early American life, including scenes of agriculture, transportation and industry. It also inspired with images of Lady Liberty and other iconic symbols.
Furthermore, our banknotes serve as hand-to-hand ambassadors to other countries. What message does the imagery on our currency convey? Does it tell our story fully and accurately?
Perhaps it is time for the US to “think more expansively and creatively about the images that appear on our money—as we have in our past and as other nations do today.” (Politico)
U.S. Currency Education Program