The Currencies of Paper Currency

Currency is a medium of exchange, a unit of account that is portable, durable, divisible, and fungible. But it’s more than that. It is also part of a nation’s identity. Take the “greenback” for example.

The U.S.’s paper currency, the greenback is recognized worldwide. It is symbolic, iconic–standing for, representing, the United States of America. That said, compared with many other nations’ currencies, the new $100 bill notwithstanding, greenbacks are aesthetically rather boring [1].

This is almost certainly intentional. Being iconic bears a burden—to be iconic, something needs to be instantly recognizable. To be instantly recognizable requires stability. And, as we all know, stability and consistency can be boring; they can signifiers of aesthetic stagnation. The double bind is that stability also signifies solidity, a non-trivial trait when it comes to currency.

The U.S. dollar bill design originated during the American Civil War, in 1861, when the North printed money to boost its financial standing. The cheap ink that was readily available was green, a near cousin of the color we see today–this was also when the greenback was first named. Notably, while the greenback was coming into existence, there were some much more colorful contenders. Indeed, paper currencies in the States enjoyed, albeit briefly, a somewhat more representationally flamboyant heyday. Around 1862, currency was issued by private banks, each with its own design. Many of these designs were creative and visually appealing, but sadly the diversity was not a boon for commerce. Notes had different values, failing to satisfy the fungibility criterion mentioned above. So, in 1863, the first federally chartered notes were introduced and the foundations for monetary and design consistency established.

The design guidelines for U.S. dollar bills have been fairly stable with regard to layout, size, texture, and color since the early 1900s, if not the mid to late 1880s. An obvious characteristic of U.S. dollar bills is that a particularly narrow design pattern extends across the whole portfolio of notes. Reviewing the contents of my wallet, $1, $5, and $20 bills all have the same look and feel. Certainly there are graphic differences to behold in each one, but you have to pay careful attention.

Due to their uniformity, U.S. bills have usability issues. This was underscored for me when I went to an accessibility-awareness event, where, in the pitch black (intended to simulate visual impairment), I completely failed to work out which notes were which. You don’t have to be in the dark–even on everyday occasions–in a dimly lit restaurant or bar for example–the wrong denomination of U.S. dollar bill is easily be spent if one does not apply careful visual scrutiny or have some other scheme for distinguishing the bills.

Many of these issues come to the fore when currencies are redesigned. A complex business, currency (re)design involves much debate amongst many stakeholders–as evidenced by recent pronouncements in the U.K. In July 2013, the U.K.’s governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervin King, announced that Sir Winston Churchill shall replace Elizabeth Fry on the reverse of the new £5 note in 2016. The next £10 note will feature Jane Austen who replaces Charles Darwin [3]. Hurrah! Horror! Confusion! Even a cursory review of the press reveals that these decisions caused much delight, even more angst, and endless debate among the public.

Elevated public engagement of this kind offers a nice illustration of the fact that currency is more than its monetary worth: currency showcases national identity, revealing how a nation sees itself and wants to be seen. Currency can be an intentional, conscious work of art; currency can be aesthetically delightful. As I survey the paper currencies I have left over from travel, each of the notes before me—British pound notes, euros from Spain and Italy, the Swiss franc, the Hong Kong dollar, the New Zealand dollar, Australian dollars, Canadian dollars—clearly stand for more than their exchange worth. My personal favorite is Australian currency—colorful, with vivid imagery, varied sizes, and a very practical design element. The notes are waterproof, made of polypropylene polymer. Design genius. I bet these are long-lasting compared with U.S. notes: The estimated life span of a $1 note is less than six years, for a $5 note less than five years, and for a $10 note about four years. Fifty-dollar notes have a life span of on average 3.7 years.

Redesign is not just about aesthetics and usability, of course; it is also about foiling counterfeiters. In 2011 the Bank of England redesigned the £50 note, increasing from five to eight the security measures embodied in the note. The most noticeable change is an inventive motion-thread technology that is woven into the paper of the note. This results in a semi-translucent feature: five windows displaying images of the £ symbol and the number 50. When the note is tilted through various planes, the £ symbol and the number 50 appear to move and/or switch positions. The recently introduced, and aesthetically more interesting, U.S. $100 bill features the same technology. It gives me no end of wry pleasure to think that security features incidentally introduced an artistic flair to a US note.

So what about the future? Notes and coins, it is rumored, are not here for much longer. Other forms of exchange are taking over. Credit cards, many of which have their own eye-catching designs, were first introduced in 1950 with the Diners Card. They now represent well over 50 percent of all transactions in the U.S. and U.K., and the percentage is increasing. Digital wallets are getting more popular for online purchases from desktops and phones. The key to digital wallets is the authentication of the holder’s credentials. Somewhat differently, Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer digital currency, which, because of the focus on unique identifiers for the “coins,” has been hailed as far more security-focused than other forms of digital currency. This has led to it being called a cryptocurrency. Notably, bitcoins and note currency seem to be perfectly compatible—various vendors already offer banknotes, coins, and cards denominated in bitcoins. Further, many futuristic visions for shopping leave paper currency out completely. It has been suggested that soon I will be able to walk into a shop, get a retinal scan while feeling the texture of cashmere sweater, and nod to pay. A nod, a wink, some retinal authentication, and I walk out of the shop with my purchase.

If currency in the form of notes are a billboard for a nation’s taste, a material form of a national boast and a traveler’s memory of places visited, all the convenience and security of this kind of casual acquisitive glance could have some serious implications. How is a nation to show off? And, more personally, what the heck am I going to do with my fabulous collection of wallets?

1. U.S. dollar bills cannot be accused of restricting people’s imaginative capabilities. A healthy dose of imagination and some origami skills really help here–What are those odd symbols on some denominations of bill? Secret society symbols? And if you have the time to waste, apparently you can fold various notes in various ways to provide Nostradamus-like predictions of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I am not, personally, a follower of any of these particular fanciful notions.

2. I highly recommend taking a look at David Standish’s 2000 book The Art of Money.

3. If you want a full list of who has been on U.K. banknotes, you can find out here:

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