It’s Harriet Tubman versus Andrew Jackson in the battle for the $20 bill.
That’s the headline.
A reader wrote me that perhaps it is time to put that aside to consider the main reason paper money is redesigned:
To make it more resistant to counterfeiting.
Has that primary purpose gotten lost?
It sure looks like it.
It takes the Bureau of Engraving and Printing a long time to perform this duty.
The last note redesign cycle took many years.
You might be comfortable with the big head note designs now.
When the $100 Federal Reserve Note was redesigned and then introduced to circulation to 1996, it came as something of a shock.
American paper money had been unique in the world in its unchanging nature.
Policy had been to deter counterfeiting by worldwide policing led by the Secret Service.
That tool alone worked for decades.
The new $100 was introduced to a public unused to any change at all.
In that case, Benjamin Franklin was not replaced.
His head was magnified.
But that still caused upset.
Some charged it looked like Monopoly money.
However, fighting counterfeits was the reason for it.
As we approached the 21st century, it was important to abandon notes designed in the 1920s.
The upset in 1996 was international.
Many people in the world had their savings in $100 bills.
In their countries, new notes mean old notes suddenly become worthless.
There was scramble to swap old Benjamins for new.
They got their new notes.
They calmed down.
The paper money replacement cycle is a long one.
After the $100, in 1997 came the new $50 with U.S. Grant and again in 2004.
In 1998, the big head Jackson arrived, and the next version was 2003.
In 2000 and then again in 2006, Alexander Hamilton had his makeovers on the $10.
Abraham Lincoln’s turn in the limelight came also in 2000 when the $5 was modified.
It was changed again in 2008.
The BEP went back to the $100 in 2013 for its next upgrade.
Over time, watermarks, security strips, micro-printing and other counterfeit deterrents have been added.
More security items are coming.
The next cycle of note redesign is what opened the door to changing portraits.
Whether portraits are changed or not, the need to fight counterfeits goes on.
A new $20 may not arrive before 2030 in the next upgrade cycle.
I have seen it said in news reports that there might not be cash by then.
But on the other hand, the suffering of the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has included a mad scramble for physical cash.
There is a shortage.
There is no electricity in most places on the island.
There might not be for six months.
Try to get food with bitcoins in that environment.
Paper money still has unheralded advantages.
Thanks to my reader, I will keep this thought in the back of my mind.
Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017 . He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."
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