When US money was nice to look at

US currency was beautiful, once upon a time, when it sported images of animals and symbolic statuary, rather than deifying its citizen-rulers by putting presidents on the money as though they were kings. This 1901 $10 note (available on Wikimedia Commons in a 33.34MB, 6,454 × 5,784 JPEG!) is a case in point.

United States $10 Banknote, Legal Tender, Series of 1901 (Fr. Ref#114), depicting Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The central portrait is a depiction of an American bison. Part of the National Numismatic Collection, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution. (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. Part of the reason I collect foreign currency is it’s just aesthetically interesting, and often celebrates things like local fauna or even sporting events (the 1982 World Cup match in Spain on the 25 peseta being an example). And at least as far as US coins go we did have that all fifty states, and territories, and national parks represented on the quarter. Many of those designs were spectacular.

    And I also understand from a certain Abe Simpson that once upon a time nickels had bees on ’em.

    1. There are in fact two of them on the nickel now. One on the front, and one on the back (I should probably say obverse and reverse or I’ll be attacked by a pedantic numismatist, which is a great name for a band).

  2. I’m only a commoner.  What is this ‘putitng’ of royal presidents you speak of?  Is it Russian related, by chance?  :^)

  3. I will be happy to take the burden of all your ugly money.  Though my eyes may burn, it will be but a small price to pay to ease your pain.

  4. I don’t think the old stuff looks any better than the modern stuff. The skill that went into creating what is depicted is pretty amazing, especially when you consider how the artist has to etch that art into a metal plate, but I think the overall aesthetics are better now than they used to be.

    As for what is depicted, I think that comes in cycles. Look at what they’re doing with coins.. every year new art is showing up in the change drawer. I imagine that trend will make it to paper bills someday.

    Only real dislike I have with modern paper currency is how the anti-counterfeiting features have cluttered the space up. I understand why it’s necessary but it’s still really damn ugly.

  5. Modern US currency is depressing.  I carry Euros and MX Pesos for business trips.  They both clobber the Dollar aesthetically.  And Pesos are actually durable, some being made of a kind of polyethylene that’s practically indestructible.  I used a wadded up 20 peso note to shim a drafty hotel room window and it was completely unharmed.
    We really need to reform our currency for a number of reasons but it will never happen.  Every proposed change to paper money triggers a thousand absurd conspiracy stories.

    1. I thought proposed changes to paper money (as far as composition/dimensions go, or eliminating paper singles) threaten enormous capital investments in automated bill-handling equipment throughout the country.

    2. Likewise for Canadian ‘paper’ money.

      Someone, who isn’t me at all nosireebob, once confided to a friend that: “You know, I shouldn’t admit this in public, but those new plastic twenty dollar bills are really great for flossing…”

      / Like how do you manage to tell the various denominations in US currency apart when you’re in a rush?

    3. The Euro bills are tolerable. The coins are awful.
      We used to have awesome bills here in the Neverlands. A portrait gallery of our greatest mutants. We used to have the guy who sort of invented atheism, Baruch Spinoza, on the one thousand bill. I miss those.

    4. Most paper money nowadays is made from cotton. Apart from US bills (although they all say treasury note) which use a mixture of cotton and linen. Linen increases the durability at the expense of separability. US bills are the worst to handle and aesthetics is the least of their problems. Haha. Peruvian 100 dollar bills are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Not even the US treasury will reveal all the security features to try to stay ahead of the counterfeiters.

  6. It’s true that these are beautiful.  However we were already “putting presidents on the money as though they were kings,” long before this.  Lincoln was on gold certificates issued in the 1860s.

  7. I didn’t know we had the option to not have dead presidents all over our cash. I’d much rather have symbols of our land and shared values…

    Or like Germany has on their money… great people rather than deceased politicians.

    1. The Euro notes have bridges on one side and buildings on the other.  I’m not old enough to have seen a German note before the Euro was introduced.

      British notes have (at the moment) a nurse, scientists and engineers.  http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/Pages/current/default.aspx (and different sizes and colours!)

  8. Some of the old gold-certificate $10,000 bills and so on were nice as they had a nice orange colour but most U$ are just a boring green.

  9. In 1900, we had the Indian Head Penny, the Buffalo Nickel, the Mercury Dime, the Victory Quarter, and the Liberty Dollar coins. By the middle of the 20th century, they had all been replaced by presidents.

    A certain patriotism started to manifest itself in the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe it was part of the world wide nationalist movement, but that was also the peek of the American anti-immigrant wave too.

    I would love to go back and remove Presidents from our money and maybe a bit more variety in our currency too. We have some differing colors. Of course, I’d rather have sound currency that’s dull to look at rather than pretty currency that isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on. But, why can’t we have both?

  10. Some of the Military Payment Certificates look neat, only because they had to change them frequently to avoid arbitrage, and that meant more artwork.  Also weird to see small bills that were closer to Monopoly money in size, for denominations as small as five cents.  I’ve still got some of my dad’s Vietnam-era ones, which have the Gemini spacewalk on the back.

  11. The big face is functional. An enormous part of your brain is devoted to facial recognition. That makes large faces on money an effective way of detecting counterfeits. It is a lot easier for use to spot small flaws in Benjamin Franklin than in a buffalo.

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