They weren’t always dead white men’s faces

I wish I could locate the quote that insisted that money remembers. Maybe that’s why our currency tries to appear so classically Roman.

If money remembers, it also forgets. Until the beginning of the 20th century, American currency shunned portraits of historic people. Jack Weatherford, author of The History of Money, has written: “Despite nineteenth-century proposals to circulate coins with the likenesses of American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, public disapproval prevented them: no individual, no matter how great or how popular, could adequately symbolize America.”

Well, the Bible did have that injunction against worshipping graven images.

Still, the buffalo, Indian head, wheat sheave — even Lady Liberty — receded as America became more urban, more militaristic, and perhaps unconsciously more ashamed of the destruction of so much of its natural inheritance.

Just image would adequately symbolize America today?

Where in all of this imagery is an acknowledgement of money’s dark side? Are there clear messages of controls and limits? Or is there only noble enlightenment?


We made our own funny money

Ceramic artist Jane Kaufmann came up with the idea. As part of one workshop session, each of us was given two slips of wet clay the size of a dollar bill — one for the front and one for the back. And then, with a stylus, we set out to design our own currency.

Jane carefully took our work home, glazed the pieces — in green — fired them in her kiln and brought them back the next week.

“It ain’t hay,” is among the mottos I recall. It featured a rabbit.

Another, I think, had “easy come, easy go.” Maybe that one had a horse.

Living in New Hampshire, I went for a moose. Something big, powerful, usually slow moving. Dumb, too, at least when it comes to cars and drivers.

I rather like the idea of money being something that goes from one place to another. Maybe even into a hole, like that rabbit.

As we were designing our pieces, we made mistakes. Most of us weren’t active artists, after all. But one of the advantages of clay was that we could take a little water and wipe out the error and then redo the spot. It was messy, yes, but so is money.

We also had to handle our funny money carefully. When it was wet, of course, it could slide to the floor and crumple. Once it was fired, it might fall in a way that would shatter.

What touches would you give your design? Would they be humorous? Serious?

What would they say about you?

We could have had masterpiece coinage

Thinking of money itself as a work of art is something Theodore Roosevelt did when he asked the renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign America’s coinage.

Double eagle image by Lost Dutchman Rare Coins via Wikimedia Commons
Double eagle image by Lost Dutchman Rare Coins via Wikimedia Commons

The artist was in declining health when he accepted the commission, but he did complete a $20 gold Double Eagle, first minted in 1907, that’s hailed as one of the most beautiful coins ever, along with a $10 gold Indian Head. A Liberty penny was proposed but never produced.


Did you know there used to be a half-cent coin?

How do you feel about today’s penny? Still useful? Or more of a nuisance?

Examine those heads … and their tails

Here we were talking about our complex relationships with money, but nowhere did I come across anyone discussing the actual object of our affection — or disaffection, depending.

What if we examined it as a work of art? Enlarged it and hung it on the living room wall?

We handle paper currency and coins daily — have done it for most of our lives — but how many of us have actually looked closely at the artifact, maybe apart from coin collectors?

And so, in one workshop session, I handed out slips of paper and pencils or pens. “Draw what you remember seeing on the front of a dollar bill,” I told them. “It doesn’t have to be too accurate. Just an idea.”

Boy, did I get a bunch of blank looks!

Ditto for the back side.

A coin — any denomination — seemed to be even more elusive.

Quite simply, there was a lot of detail our eyes have usually jumped right over. Could we even detect a counterfeit?

Frankly, it’s pretty baffling.

In general, on the bills you’ll find signatures, serial numbers, official seals, the year of printing, the nation, and the denomination, both as a numeral and spelled out in shaded capital letters. There’s a lot of engraver’s filigree, for certain, as well as borders and other printer’s tricks-of-the-trade. Why green — an olive green — by the way?

The coins follow suit, on a smaller scale.

Our dollars and cents are loaded with classical imagery, most notably a Caesar-god on one side and a temple on the other. It’s all so serious! Do any of those portraits ever smile?

All of this reminds me of a Victorian-era cemetery.

As for the motto, “In God we trust”? Does anyone else hear organ music?

There are technical terms for all of the components, in case you’re interested. For one thing, it’s not heads and tails but rather obverse and reverse. Uh-huh.

Here’s a good question to ask at party time, once you’ve answered it yourself.

Whose face is on a one-dollar bill? On a five? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred?

And on a penny? Nickel? Dime? Quarter? Half-dollar? Dollar coin?

See if the answers get heated, and ask yourself why.

Some thoughts on using these in a discussion circle

If you’re thinking of setting up a money discussion group using these exercises, please do!

One thing I’d strongly advise is setting a time limit.

The first would be the number of sessions you’re agreeing to. Propose, for instance, to meet two hours once a week for six or eight weeks, rather than continuing till you drop.

And the second would be to limit the time for each session. We usually went for two hours, but most of us liked to talk. See what fits your circle.

Many of the issues you engage will continue to percolate within each member well after the series has ended, so you’ll find fresh insights arising in informal settings months and even years later. You’ll also be surprised how much pay dirt you turn up in just a few weeks. You’ll need time to digest it. When you’re ready for another round of discussion, you may very well have a new group at hand. At least, that’s been the experience I’ve observed.

If you’ve already been talking about these with others, what’s your experience been?

When you’re discussing these issues with others

A word of caution, if you’re discussing these exercises with a money-buddy or study group. Care must be exercised to assure that individual feelings are not accidentally offended. The makeup of the group itself can shape the discussion. If, for example, a mixed-gender group has only one man, the women may begin to use him as a lightning rod for pent-up financial emotions — but if the group has two or more men, they may unintentionally dominate the conversation.

Other differences may produce similar imbalances, so remaining alert to that potential can help assure corrective steps so that everyone benefits.

On the other hand, you may have already found some of the topics can be great for casual conversations, too.

What’s your experience been?

A committee all your own

One friend insists that whenever we make a decision, each of us has a little committee meeting inside of us, not just an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. In her view, many different values and expectations are lurking to erupt in conflict. When you’re dealing with money issues, it may even seem that you have a multi-ethnic corporate board meeting, all of them shouting and pounding the table: “Fire the president! Terminate the CEO!”—which is your office in this dis-organization.

Maybe that’s preferable to having a rubber-stamp board of directors who go along with anything you desire.

But if you’re really in charge of this operation, you need to make sure each viewpoint is heard and considered while maintaining order at the table. Inconsistencies between your stated values and actual performance may be inevitable. You may hold a “small-is-beautiful” philosophy and still find yourself at McDonald’s—especially if children have any say in your decision. Life is filled with such confrontations. Keeping aware of these contradictions, rather than stifling that small voice of conscience, enables you to turn again and again toward holy uses of money, even as you swim in the current of daily life.

Anyone else have a committee like this?

Who gets the final vote?