Money was in the news big time last week. There were the usual NYSE and NASDQ reports (both of which hit record highs), but also a bizarre story about spy coins of Canadian currency with embedded transmitters. Nobody knows where the transmitter coins came from – our government is certain that Canada is not spying on us since they are our best friend in the world (although not a member of the Coalition-of-the-Willing in Iraq). Perhaps Russia, North Korea or some other sinister country is flooding the world with counterfeit transmitter coins? (The coins are a great spy story but I still prefer transmitter olives in martinis to catch bar talk.)
Meanwhile, currency from south of the border was in the news as well. Seems a pizza chain that caters to Hispanics in the U.S., Pizza Patron, eagerly accepts pesos in payment, not just along the border (which is common to U.S. retailers) but way inland, as far north as Dallas. The policy has incurred the wrath of the anti-immigrant folks, including death threats sent to Pizza Patron. Anyone who hates pesos can send them to me.
The really big and ongoing numismatic news is the U.S. Treasury’s state quarter series, and indeed California’s 25-cent piece is starting to show up in daily transactions. Some years ago Sacramento accepted thousands of design suggestions (including my submission “Lipo Tuck Botox” – see drawing), culled the lot to a few candidate designs (I failed the cut) and encouraged citizens to vote over the Internet.
I may be just a sore loser, but I give the California quarter a “C” for artwork. It features Yosemite’s Half Dome, John Muir and a California condor which is way too close to Muir’s face for safety. Our state coin is cluttered.
The state quarter series is being released by order of admission to the union and so far 45 coins have been issued. I love California’s inclusion of John Muir, but note that his biographers sometimes argue that he was a draft dodger, moving to Canada (long before transmitter coins) to avoid fighting in the Civil War. Muir is not the only person honored. Other state quarters picture, among others, George Washington, Lady Liberty, a Minuteman, the Wright Brothers, a spaceman, Abraham Lincoln and Helen Keller.
To its credit (no pun intended), the California quarter at least eschews an outline of our state, which seems to be a priority elsewhere in the union (which inspired Lipo Tuck Botox). No fewer than 11 of the 45 coins struck so far outline their state, which simply looks terrible on a round coin. The biggest disaster is Illinois, a kind of modern Narcissus so smitten with its own image that the southern border cuts off Favorite Son Abraham Lincoln’s ankles and feet. Ouch!
As a whole, the quarter series gives high priority to mobility – 17 of 45 coins make some reference to transportation including trains, cars, boats, planes, a covered wagon and the Space Shuttle. Despite our car culture, California thankfully avoided the transportation bullet (including my proposal for a quarter entitled “The Greenhouse Gas State”). Alongside the California condor, birds dominate among the animal groups – South Dakota’s pheasant is the most obnoxious, placed perfectly to stain the National Park faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln or Roosevelt (Teddy) on Mount Rushmore. Horses run second, featured on four coins but not on California’s, even though we are unique in having passed a statewide initiative some years ago making it a misdemeanor to eat horse meat, and a felony to sell horses with knowledge that they would be slaughtered for human consumption.
A few coins “get it” when it comes to clean, elegant design. My favorites include West Virginia, Wyoming and Connecticut. The Connecticut coin features a handsome charter oak tree, the design of which fully respects the round canvass the coin demands. Not only does the coin respect good elements of design, the stately oak is rich in metaphor. For advocates of the political system, the oak may connote strength, longevity, prodigious potential production for generations of reproduction and regality. For cynics of government the oak may be viewed as full of nuts. Trees are, in fact, the single most common genre of plant, appearing on 12 of 45 coins.
Five new quarters will be released this year (OK, NM, AZ, AL and HI) to finish the state series unless a 51st state is added (such as Puerto Rico or Iraq). Next up will be a presidential series of coins, in order of inauguration, starting with George Washington. The state quarter coin artists may want to keep their tree artwork handy to reflect the thoughtfulness, diplomacy and effectiveness of the 43rd President when that coin is struck years hence – replacing a Bush with a tree.
A final footnote to our currency culture is the besieged dollar coin. Up until the 1950’s, the elegant silver dollar was prized, and it remains a collector’s item not only for its silver content, but elegant designs. The jumbo Eisenhower replacement dollar coin never caught on and indeed, in an instance of life imitates art, Eisenhower’s “Q-rating” has pretty much tanked as well from my parents’ generation to mine. Newer dollar coins have fared even worse. I know that the Treasury is trying to be politically correct and do the right thing to promote women in U.S. history, but the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars are nothing short of embarrassments. Perhaps their saving asset is that they managed to get into far more guys’ pants than all the supermarket tabloid bimbos combined.