I’ve always admired countries that put figures other than national political leaders on their currency. The UK £20 note featured the great scientist Michael Faraday for a while in the 1990s and in pre-Euro days, Galileo was on the Italian 2000 lire note. Apparently Jane Austen is scheduled to appear on a UK £10 note next year. The closest that the US has gotten is Benjamin Franklin on our $100 bill. While Dr. Franklin was a noted scientist of his day, he is featured on US currency because he was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
It was not always so, however.
In 1896, the US issued a set of silver certificates featuring allegorical figures on the front, and some famous inventors on the back. This set of bills, nicknamed the “Education Series”, are unlike any currency the US has ever issued. Their name comes from the title of the $1 bill, “History instructing Youth”.
The $2 bill, however, is probably my favorite. In this complicated allegorical scene, Science in the center is introducing Steam and Electricity (in the form of young children) to Commerce and Manufacture (depicted by two sitting women). The details are what make this scene, I think. Electricity, the child on the left, holds a coil of wire, while Steam has her hand on a throttle which is connected to some gears. Commerce is sitting next to a bag of cash (with a big “$” on it) and Manufacture is resting her hand on what looks like a bolt of cloth. That the reverse side of the bill features two famous American inventors–Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph–should warm the heart of any steampunk.
The $5 bill goes over the top with “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World” featuring a figure holding aloft a radiant light bulb while standing atop the globe. A figure beside her is harnessing a trio of horses with lightning bolts. Apparently, the bared breast of the central figure was too shocking for still-Puritanical Boston, and the resulting controversy convinced the Bureau of Engraving to cancel the planned larger denomination bills and to change the theme of the bills totally by 1899.
Sadly, the US didn’t continue the production of such beautifully ornate currency. Yet, they remain as an example of a time of widespread optimism that technology would create a better future. And isn’t that part of what we look for in good steampunk?