It Doesn’t Grow On Trees
Naaman Zhou on the revolution of the American banknote.
The American banknote has been the same kind of dying green its whole life, like the oxidisation on scrap copper. It has been the same size since 1929, like a child that refuses to grow. The American banknote is stuck in time. Culturally and technologically, it is one of the world’s most commonly-handled relics.
In 2020, a small change is scheduled to come. It’s been announced that a prominent, historically significant woman (as yet unspecified) will grace the $10 bill (exact placement unknown). It’s long overdue and welcome, but it’s not nearly enough. The American bill is a complete failure of design, inside and out, in need of revolution.
Australians, for one, are used to a finer kind of fabric. The Reserve Bank’s polymer banknote, in circulation since 1988, is a flexible, multi-panelled marvel. Made of plastic and layered ink, it combines durability with cellophane/cathedral-window vividity. In comparison, the paper-based greenback feels like moth wings and particleboard. The Aussie note is waterproof and harder to counterfeit than its US sibling, which, being made of 75% cotton/25% linen, is as technically advanced as a t-shirt.
Even worse, all the American denominations are the same size and colour. This makes it impossible for the visually impaired to tell a $5 from a $50. The banknote’s problem, distilled, is one of accessibility. The national currency should be accessible to the nation’s people—relevant, modern, reflective of natural diversity. Instead they have that bizarre Freemason, ‘Illuminati’ eye. A noteface crammed with gothic imagery and loops of vaguely-threatening Latin nobody can explain. The conspiracy crackpots prove a point: the note is so devoted to old, unrecognisable ideas, it’s become the only national currency its own public hates.
Thus the need for female and black representation should be self-evident—people need a banknote they can recognise themselves in. In fact, the current problem isn’t solely that bills only feature dead white guys, it’s that they aren’t even the most relevant dead white guys for the job. These are the dead white guys that the average punter wouldn’t know.
Andrew Jackson, seventh president and face of the $20, once savagely beat a man with a cane and is technically a murderer. He’s responsible for the loss of 4,000 Native American lives (‘The Trail of Tears’) and tried to destroy the National Bank. The threads of his history don’t lead to anything, his place on the bill is an accident that wasn’t corrected, old age and high office mistaken for lasting worth.
Common citizens deserve the platform, and relevance should be the watchword. Again, Australia is something of a gold standard—we’ve got Banjo Patterson and Dame Nellie Melba (famous cultural icons!); David Unaipon and Edith Cowan (trailblazers with modern social legacies!). Pre-Eurozone, the French had Marie Curie, and in 2017, the British will have Jane Austen. These are faces people actually recognise, faces that mean something.
Against this, the US banknote is a maddening, beautifully mundane icon of American intransigence—with its second-rate fabric, third-rate faces, unblinking eye from 1782. Probably, it’s some psychic by-product of exceptionalism—why change when you’ve been muttering for years that nobody does it better? Except of course, we do.
 Except you can wash a t-shirt.
 Ok yes, the man was trying to assassinate him but, trust me, he was an angry old fuck with a penchant for cane-related assault.
 Killed a man in a duel.
 Fun and wonderful fact—every Australian note has equal representation (woman on one side, man on the other), except the $5, where the Queen’s face flips over to reveal a sketch of Parliament House. Ergo, more women than men. Our currency rules.