The Art of Money: The History and Design of Paper Currency From Around the World

by David Standish

Published by Chronicle

144 pages, 2000

Buy it online





Funny Money

Reviewed by David Middleton


In these days of checks, automatic teller machines, debit cards, credit cards, e-money, two for one coupons, bus transfers, scribbled I.O.U.s on the back of bar napkins and anything else that substitutes for currency, it's a wonder any of us remembers what real money looks like. You remember real money: That folding paper stuff with pictures of famous dead people on one side and on the flip side, farm machinery, the nation's bird or good natured citizens frolicking through a peaceful but obscure coastal landscape as pirate rebels wade ashore to pillage and colonize the unsuspecting masses. What? You say your money depicts the seemingly exploding head of architect Le Corbusier, a Boeing 747, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, creator of The Little Prince, a shark and an Afghan horsemen playing a chukka of polo with a dead goat carcass? Where in the world do you live?

In The Art of Money: The History and Design of Paper Currency From Around the World, David Standish takes us on a historical, geographical, political and zoological jaunt through the world of other people's money. Standish starts off with "A Short History of Money," a very interesting look at how our ancestors were using everything from animals (both living and dead), sea shells and various vegetative matter as barter, to eventually using metal coins and paper money and the hows and the whys of this evolution. My guess is that we found it hard to make change with a chicken and a zucchini. Imagine the mess in your pockets.

Like a well-produced travel brochure, money is a country's propaganda and it says a lot about, not only political ideas but ideas about art, esthetics, design and -- if you read carefully between the lines -- the intelligence and perhaps even the sense of humor of a people. Anyone who puts Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, on the front of their 200 franc note and three sax wailing hepcats on the back -- as Belgium does -- not only has a deep sense of pride in their nation's innovative people, they, in my opinion, know what and who is truly important. Definitely not the old robber barons of yore.

After our history lesson, Standish arranges Money into nice tidy stacks. The first: "Section I: International," breaks down into chapters based on design motifs. "People" showcases heroes, royalty, leaders, ordinary folk and anything they can think to do and brightens up and gives a human touch to a fresh new bill. "Economy," where agriculture, industry and vehicles lend a touch of wealth and prosperity -- nothing says affluence like an effluent-spewing factory on the back of a ten spot. "The International Zoo," where it's not just dead guys who get their mugs on the moolah: orangutans, lions, lizards and even a lowly sparrow or two get equal billing. "Odds and Ends," takes a peek at innovative art and design, the new Euro and what inflation can do to the economy -- in 1993 the fall of Yugoslavia led to the issuing of a 500 billion dinara note -- that's a five followed by 11 zeros, or half a trillion. One year later that same piece of change turned chump and became a 10 dinara note -- that's a one followed by one zero.

Finishing off Money is "Section II: United States." This covers the history of American money from Colonial Currency through the Revolution, the Civil War, right up to present day. And, as Standish illustrates, way-back-when the States did have some very interesting and beautiful bank notes depicting everything from bison and battleships to bare-naked babes.

It's interesting to note that, whereas almost every other country takes great effort in hiring teams of (perhaps, and on occasion, drug influenced or even slightly loopy) designers to produce currency that can be not only a pleasure to look at but also considered hip, cool or just outright wacky, North Americans -- U.S. citizens in particular -- seem to be plagued by money that is often monochromatic and dull. "And the money isn't just dull," writes Standish "it's fairly weird."

What must people from other countries think when they see that enigmatic, glowing eye, balanced on a pyramid on the back of the $1 bill? That the United States traces its origins back to visitors from outer space who purportedly founded Egypt?

The new $20s, $50s, and $100s aren't exactly an improvement. Same old buildings on the back, and the same old people. Their heads -- well, they're too big. Hydrocephaly on money. They look like characters from the cable cartoon show South Park. And with the new, bigger print to go with them, they seem to have been designed by aging baby boomers for aging baby boomers -- all of us who can no longer read without our glasses. MONEY: THE LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Former Playboy articles editor and contributor to such magazines as Esquire, Rolling Stone and Smithsonian, David Standish's writing is informative, hilarious and insightful -- frequently pointing out unintentioned faux pas and red herrings as well as the often overlooked subtle loveliness of these wallet-sized works of art. Well-designed and downright beautiful to look at -- using bank note influenced art and layout -- The Art of Money is a treasure worth hoarding. | February 2001


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and while some believe that the love of money is the root of all evil, Middleton is certainly not in love with money. But he'll definitely date money. It will, of course, pick up the check.