Paper bills as public history
I’m curious to see the latest P100 bill issued by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the ube ice cream color of which has been slightly adjusted so that it cannot be mistaken for the P1,000 bill. US dollar bills are all in the color of green, but nobody seems to mistake $1 for $5, $10, $20, or $50. (The new $100 bill is in a different color now because of added security features, to make it harder to forge.)
I learned to respect our bank notes after seeing how much work goes into their design and production. If one looks back on how exchange developed from barter to the use of coins, to paper, plastic and online banking, one will see that it makes for an engaging history lesson.
In its earliest form—often food or physical objects of equivalent value—money began in the barter for goods. Before the use of precious metals such as gold and silver, monetary value was reckoned in staple foods like rice in China or Japan or grain in Egypt and Mesopotamia. One of the earliest coins, the drachma, was based on the weight of grain, and one of the earliest paper money in Japan, the koku, was based on rice either in storage or even in expected yield—an early example of futures trading. As societies became more complex, other inedible products were also given exchange value: pearls and cowrie shells from the sea, and finally processed precious metals from the earth like gold, silver, copper and bronze.
While coins came before paper money and were more durable, these were physically more difficult to transport in large quantities. Thus, individuals, banks, and governments started to issue paper as a promise to pay a given sum with equivalent value in gold or silver. This made transactions easier, safer, and more lightweight. While some form of paper money was used in ancient China to address the shortage of coins circa 960 AD, the acknowledged first bank note in history is dated to 1375 in Ming China. Sheets of paper made from the mulberry tree—the size of an A4 sheet today—were printed in exchange for 1,000 coins drawn on the bank note. When you realize that this piece of paper was worth three kilos of coins, you understand the advance and practical use of paper money.
In the West, the earliest bank note was issued in the 17th century: in Sweden in 1660, and by the Bank of England in 1694.
Often overlooked today is that paper in itself is of little or no value compared to a piece of gold or silver. So how does it gain or retain value? A bank note is a promise to pay a given value—in our case, P20, P50, P100, P200, P500 and P1,000 to the bearer by the institution that issued it. Bank notes can be very simple and just contain texts and numbers that clearly indicate its amount or face value. But all bank notes issued by different monetary institutions around the world contain more than the value and the guarantee of payment; they are works of art that must have a portrait of some historical or important person on the face and a scene on the reverse. All these pictures are placed on the notes primarily to deter counterfeiting, but in the process these images reflect the unique history and culture of the issuing country.
One could say that the images on bank notes can be read as an expression of a country’s identity. When you see the image of George Washington on a green dollar bill, you know it was issued by the United States of America. When you see the image of Queen Elizabeth II on a bank note, you know that it was issued by the United Kingdom or any of the countries in her realm. Like flags and emblems that are symbols of a state, a bank note placed in your pocket or wallet is like a country’s name card.
My interest in bank notes is related to the history printed on them that supplements textbooks, classroom history, and civics because it expresses something about the past: the founding fathers, significant events and personages.
Bank notes attempt to tell a story, or part of a story, regarding a nation and nationhood. Like classroom history, a bank note is both informative and formative when the past is utilized to situate citizens in the context of a nation. While a bank note tells a story on a small sheet of paper, what people do not see are the reasons behind its design: For example, the use of particular historical personages and the exclusion of others are a decision that underscores the contested nature of history especially when it is handmaid to nation-building and nationalism.
I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking why the image of President Ramon Magsaysay has never appeared on a bank note. The reader even suggested redesigning the current P1,000 bill and replacing the World War II figures on it with that of Magsaysay. If we follow this suggestion, then all of our bank notes would carry the images of former presidents of the Philippines.
In a sense, bank notes are a form of public history. They are documents that express a given historical past as understood and propagated by the central bank; they carry positive symbols meant to promote a sense of pride and identity.
The next time you pull bank notes out of your wallet, give them a second look and ask yourself: Why do they carry only the portraits of dead people, and not of Pacquiao, Pia Wurztbach or AlDub? Why are the colors the way they are?
If we could redesign bank notes, what would we want them to be, and would they reflect the nation we want to be?
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