Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Picture Worth 500 Billion Dinara

by Drew Martin

I just finished reading a book that jumped out at me from the shelves of my local library. The Art of Money seems like the title of something penned by Dale Carnegie but it is actually a beautifully-printed and lively survey of the art on money from around the world, throughout the ages, as well as an interesting history of American cash. It was listed in the top 10 notable art books of 2000 by The New York Times.

The author, David Standish, keeps the writing as crisp as a dollar bill but at times it feels a little unedited. Twice he comments that Uganda is east of Kenya. So that made me question a lot of his other fun and interesting facts. Was the US Coinage Act of 1792 really start the first use of the decimal system for money as he says?

One of the currencies he shows is the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia. It’s one of my favorite pieces of money, and something quite familiar to me since having one in my pocket back in Prague in 1992 meant I could go to a pub and get a warm bowl of gulash, some fresh bread and a cold, draft beer. But he writes that it is the only note that depicts a wedding with a couple holding a bible. The front features a portrait of Jan Amos Komensky, a 17th Century Czech writer, scientist and father of modern education. The back side, pictured here, features a young couple reading from a book, but they are not getting married as he claims.

None-the-less Standish is an engaging writer so I want to believe all the other facts that he peppers throughout the book, which kept me hooked. Such as:
  • To pay, comes from Latin pacare to satisfy.
  • The word money comes from an incident in 390 BC: a flock of local geese noisily flew away from their turf around the Temple of Juno when a group of Gauls attempted to raid the place, which doubled as a mint. Their taking flight alerted the guards to be on the defense and ward off the invaders. It was thereafter called Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner.
  • Paper money was invented by the Chinese eunuch, Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD.
  • The early paper money of China was a little suspect so it was embellished with silk threads and perfume to make it more attractive.
  • Genghis Khan adamantly continued the Chinese paper money system. He seized everyone’s silver and gold and gave them paper money, thus monopolizing a government’s control of precious metals.
  • Marco Polo brought the idea of paper money to Europe where people were most intrigued that not accepting paper money in the East was punishable by death.
  • The word dollar comes from the valley tag –thal to locations (i.e. Neanderthal) – the silver dollar was invented by Count Stephan Schlick in Joachimsthal, Bohemia in 1520. They were naturally called Joachimsthalergroschen, then thalers for short. (tallero in Italian, daalder in Dutch, etc.) 
  • 1600’s goldsmiths in England became the first bankers mainly because they had safes and they would give out bank notes for the value of the precious metals deposited.
  • Bucks, as in five bucks, comes from the use of deerskin in early American trading (as it was in 100 BC China when approximately 1’ x 1’ squares of decorated deerskin became a substitute for metal coins).
  • Beaver pelts, musket balls, and even iron nails served for early American trading exchanges.
  • In 1619 tobacco became legal tender in Virginia.
  • A wampum factory was set up in 1760 in New Jersey to aid a fledgling economy, which was active until the Civil War. 
  • Wampum inflation occurred when the steel drill bit was invented, which made wampum much easier to produce because it required drilling a hole through the shell.
  • Queen Elizabeth II is the most ubiquitous face on money, gracing 37 different currencies.
  • The highest denomination of any currency was the 500 Billion dinara note of the former Yugoslavia.
  • The highest denomination of a United States note was once a $10,000 bill.
  • The “bill” part of dollar bill is left over from when paper money in the US was originally referred to as a bill of credit, meaning the government owes you money (silver or gold) and that it was only a short term public loan to the government to be paid to creditors, often soldiers. The pretense was dropped in 1972. 

This book made me consider the strong correlation between printed writings and printed money. Renaissance Europe had an upperhand on the startup printed word industry not only because of the abundant olive and grape presses that could be easily converted to printing presses but because European character blocks (alphabets, numbers, and punctuation) could be managed much more efficiently than in other parts of the world such as China. Europeans only needed a hundred or so movable types whereas the Chinese need thousands. One thing I learned was that the famous Gutenberg Bible from 1455 does not bear the name of Johannes Gutenberg anywhere because he could not pay his loans for the press and operation so the banker foreclosed and turned over the business to his own son.

While Standish carries his whit trough a lot of pages with pictures of money and his captions, he is most enjoyable when he gets rolling on a subject. He thoroughly explains how US dollars became so drab but delights in the history of the pre-Revolutionary War rise of money and the messages they carried such as a $6 Continental note depicting a beaver gnawing at a tree. It is accompanied by the Latin word Perseverando (by persevering), which serves as a metaphor for toppling the British empire.

“The aesthetic revealed in these images seems a visual embodiment of America’s puritan heritage in the best sense – simple, direct, but resonating metaphysics as well. Together with the sentiments expressed in the Latin mottoes this Continental currency is rather brave and stirring. The revolutionaries were, it should be remembered, taking on the world’s most powerful empire.”

Standish rolls up the sleeves of America's early printers/turned legends including Ben Franklin who included the message "To Counterfeit is Death" in the early money his shop printed, and he creates an image of Paul Revere pulling "all-nighters" to print money. Revere actually used the back of the plate of his famous Boston Massacre etching.

Standish includes images of some of his favorite American cash such as this $2 bill which is of Science presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacturing. 

And this one of Electricity all grown up.

Standish breaks down the graphics of international currencies into a series of categories including National Heroes, Tough Guys, Topless Money, Agriculture, Transportation, and International Zoo. While he explains in National Heroes that local heroes remain pretty local, he does mention the international cultural significance of former French notes, such as the 100 francs devoted to Paul C├ęzanne.

My favorite category Artful Tender, which is devoted to eye-catching designs. It includes the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia as shown at the top of this post as well as some other beautiful bills.