Financial History Issue 116 (Winter 2016) | Page 22

The Messages of Money By Ellen R. Feingold Note: This article has been adapted from The Value of Money (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2015). The most prominent message on money is often the denomination, or monetary value, but it is rarely the only message. Through images and text, governments use money to make both subtle and overt political and cultural statements about a nation’s identity, leadership, heritage and values. The practice of attaching messages to money makes coins and notes valuable sources for learning about global cultures and history. American money in the 18th and 19th centuries contained a wide range of political messages relating to the young nation. Notes and coins depicted symbols and scenes that portrayed and reinforced democratic principles and national unity. Some concepts were expressed through imagery and classical allegory. The personification of Justice is portrayed on a $50 interest-bearing note from 1863 as a woman holding scales. The idea of unity among the 13 colonies is conveyed on a one-sixth dollar note from the Pennsylvania Colony through the depiction of 13 interlocking rings. Other messages were more direct, such as the phrase “’Tis Death to Counterfeit,” which appeared on many colonial notes to notify users of the strict punishment for violating the law. The inclusion of portraits of national icons on money can be traced back thousands of years to ancient political figures, such as the emperors of Rome. The widespread practice of depicting national leaders on money makes coins particularly robust sources for studying the succession of governments and the ways in which rulers communicated and demonstrated authority. American money has featured — and continues to feature — many of the nation’s founding fathers and leading political figures, such as George Washington, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Their portraits invoke a feeling of stability and continuity, reminding people of the nation’s strong leadership through times of crisis and discord. National icons and political messages are often portrayed alongside cultural messages, which can reflect or even help shape a community’s identity. For example, the inclusion of multiple languages on money can convey existing linguistic diversity, such as the 17 languages on Indian rupee notes, or can spread the acceptance of a new language or script. Religious messages on money can highlight a widely held belief, introduce a new religious doctrine, or, as with the American motto “In God we trust,” connect the fate of the nation to the will of the divine. The use of imagery of historic sites, such as the pyramids of Egypt, can be employed by governments to promote their ideas about national heritage, identity and tradition. In addition to the messages that appear on money, monetary objects created for special circumstances convey information about their times and places simply through their creation and use. For example, the introduction of separate currencies for persecuted people, such as notes issued to Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps and Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust, reveal not only a little-understood aspect of the history of that genocide, but also the ways in which money can be used as a social and political device of oppression. Special currencies have also been created during times of economic difficulty; hard-times tokens produced in H N