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
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 HN