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Money Talks

Banknotes are generally issued by governments or national banks and their imagery is intended to represent the reliability of these banks and of the economic and political system. Of course, their designs are also influenced by other countries' currencies.

Banknotes of one sort or another have been in existence since the early Middle Ages, in 7th Century China. In 16th Century England, goldsmith-bankers issued receipts, known as 'running cash notes', for coins deposited with them. Europe's earliest modern-style banknotes, worth a fixed amount and printed on thick, white watermarked paper, were issued by the Bank of Stockholm in 1661, as an alternative to Sweden's heavy copper coins which were cumbersome to carry and easily stolen. They were signed individually by hand.

Soon, states, cities, banks, even individuals who had access to a printing press began producing banknotes, which led to total chaos. 'Unscrupulous issuers had a bag of tricks to avoid redeeming their banknotes. One method was to issue good money printed on poor-quality paper - the issuer hoping the paper would disintegrate before it was redeemed.'

It may seem that Cash is disappearing from everyday life, making way for electronic money. But printing money is, in itself, still big business. According to Smithers' The Future of Banknotes, the global banknote production market is growing: from US$ 9.94 billion (in 2018) to a value of US$ 11.63 billion in 2023.

An obvious problem with banknotes is that of counterfeiting. 'One engraving discovery to emerge in the early 19th century was the realisation that the faithful portrayal of human skin was extremely difficult - a skill mastered by few engravers. Exploiting the difficulty, despite the prudish mores of the time, many 19th century banknotes feature vignettes of nudes, presumably with the thought that the more skin the better. The Banque de France extensively employed the technique on French and colonial banknotes. The practice may have reached its peak on Finnish banknotes issued in the 1930s portraying happy groups of nudists.'

By the mid-19th century, as printing techniques improved, metallic threads were inserted and counterfeiting became more and more difficult. Paper money - now starting to be issued by national banks - 'was becoming more acceptable to people as a media of exchange. Expanding commerce and the industrial revolution saw a commensurate leap in the size and volume of financial transactions. The amount of money needed could no longer be physically or safely carried through the streets.' Like postage stamps and coins, the images on bank notes are expressions of nationalism and national identity through everyday objects. They are intended to reinforce a sense of collective identity - a kind of propaganda tool. 'As the ideology of nationalism spread, national leaders saw in money a powerful way to disseminate general national symbols or even to make specific irredentist points.' This, in spite of what Kenyan feminist and political theorist Wambui Mwangi wrote: 'Money is meant to be seen but not looked at.'

Most banknotes contain images of national heroes or historic events (or myths), often related to the country's independence. Among them, there are few women. A Quartz analysis of paper currency from 622 bank notes from the 75 largest economies, reveals that '64% of banknotes - 405 bills - had at least one image of a person, including statues. Only 12% of banknotes that depict a person have a named woman, whereas 84% of banknotes that depict a person have a named man […] Queen Elizabeth II has an outsized influence on the statistics. She graces 8 different bills across four countries in the analysis.' Many of the depicted women are anonymous figures, often agricultural workers. Without these anonymous and mythological depictions, we are left with only 52 bills, representing 59 portrayals of women.

The flipside of banknotes most often presents landscapes, animals and flowers - and work. In this project, Jan Banning has focused on the images of labor on banknotes worldwide: after all, there is a clear connection between the two. The implication of this selection is that it excludes banknotes from a considerable number of countries, first and foremost the euro.

Kerianne Lawson, Assistant Professor of Economics at North Dakota State University Fargo observes that 'more scientific and agricultural images on money correspond with less economic freedom, political freedom, human development & gender equality' while 'more art related and cultural images on money correspond with higher economic freedom and human development index scores.'

Much iconography of work as depicted on banknotes is dominated by agriculture. Services are hardly to be found. This in spite of the fact that, according to a 2014 estimate by the CIA , services employ 45.5% of the world labor force, against agriculture's 31% and industry at 23.5%.

Jan Banning
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