I AM USED to tradition. I don’t like surprises. Yet, as I go to the automatic teller to get some cash, suddenly out comes this brash $20 bill that looks remarkably different.
I do a double take. Andrew Jackson’s face has become funny-looking in that large off-center oval, his shock of wavy hair and long, thin, angular face looming, his shoulders and cape cut off. What has the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing made of the dignity of our president? Then, the ornate ribbonlike banner on top, with The United States of America printed on it, is gone. What remains in its place is merely a straightforward typeface seemingly unworthy of a national currency that used to be backed by a standard of gold: Federal Reserve Note, the bill bluntly states.
The name of our country is pushed off to the side. And the once-majestic-looking White House, surrounded by greenery that used to fade gently into the background, has become merely a stark building surrounded by an oval suspended in white space. Gone also are the graceful, classical designs that used to border the building. I wonder if the Bureau of Engraving and Printing couldn’t have been more discreet in its design – if it couldn’t have produced a more pleasing arrangement.
I must say I like the looks of the old bill better. Its ornate, elegant, balanced design makes it look serious, dependable, reflecting what I would expect from our national currency. Then, on the new bills, there are those odd, irritating, contemporary pop-art features. That weird hologramlike number 20 that turns bright green under the light. And there is that jarringly large number 20 that looks more like what you find on Monopoly money. These sans-serif numbers differ conspicuously in typeface from those printed in the other three corners. They make the new bill seem somewhat vulgar, garish, when compared to the more dignified old bills.
These incongruous bills look like the product of some jokester. Their parts don’t match. They look fake, not to be taken seriously. They remind me of a game, one of those popular how-many-things-
wrong-can-you-find-in-this-picture puzzles for children.
As I look more and more carefully at the bill, I find there are more and more changes to be uncovered – like the watermark duplicating the picture of the president that is revealed when I hold the bill up to the light.
The Treasury Department, of course, for security purposes, has not revealed all the bills’ new features. I think back to the hoopla when the new $100 bill made its debut more than two years ago. But the announcement of the new twenties went by almost unnoticed; that is, until those strange bills began to appear. Of course, any merchant will tell you the new $20 bill doesn’t look all that different from the new hundreds or new fifties. But, like most freelance writers, I don’t carry wads of money.
Unlike some of the tourists I see at stores carrying hundreds in gold money clips and unlike Russians, for whom the $100 bill has become a collectors’ item, I rarely even use denominations of $50 or $100s and, indeed, would find them awkward, hard to break.
My automatic teller, like most, dispenses twenties. Fives and tens and twenties are what I, like most Americans, conduct transactions with – or with a credit card. So I have never before inspected the new hundreds and fifties very closely. But, as I now glance at a $50 bill, it seems to me that Grant, with his solid face, closely cropped hair and clipped beard, and sporting a bow tie, is better centered in that oval; his portrait more tasteful than that ridiculous blown-up picture of our poor lanky Jackson.
This is not to say the Bureau of Engraving and Printing intentionally meant to make a deceased president look silly. The new $20 bill is indeed clever and utilitarian in its purpose to combat more and more sophisticated methods of counterfeiting. And it does look updated, more modern. It is a reflection of a different pragmatic era where aesthetics don’t matter.
Besides, many of today’s financial transactions are electronic, involving money we never actually see, so the look of our currency isn’t so important as it used to be. Paper dollars, in our country at least, are slowly becoming irrelevant. Being replaced at the rate of 1 percent a week, our traditional twenties may soon be products of a bygone era. And in the year 2000, I hear, a new version of a $10 bill and a $5 bill is expected, and then, a new $1 bill is to follow. Alas, I will miss those old bills.
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