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My favourite book in the whole of the university library was Beauty and The Banknote, by Virginia Hewitt, published by British Museum Press. This monochrome picture book commands its own place in the Dewey decimal system category of Printed Paper Money (next to Postage Stamps and Related Devices, in case you were wondering) and contains pictures of women appearing on banknotes of the world throughout history. Why these images fascinated me quite so much I’m still not sure, but perhaps anyone with a passing interest in the role and representation of women across the world through the ages would find the same draw.

Although the process of issuing banknotes goes back to seventh century China (or even earlier, 118BC if you count a very early leather example), it wasn’t until the Bank of England was set up in 1694 and notes were issued in return for the gold deposited with them that women started to appear on banknotes. The bank selected the Roman personification of the land of Britain, Britannia, as its seal and since then she has appeared on every note issued by the Bank of England alongside the phrase ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of…’

The paper that the note is printed on has very little actual worth (ignoring the value it may have on the black market, of course) and so it must clearly show what portion of the bank’s assets it represents. If that note can inspire trust and purport integrity then all the better, for a note is an advert for itself, its issuing bank and its country.

And what better to impart those positive connotations than with the depiction of the human form? Of course, landscapes and animals have all appeared on banknotes but nothing attracts our attention and provokes an emotional response like a human face. The reasons to why women have appeared on notes are as various as the noteworthy faces who have appeared on money across the world over the last three hundred years.

After Britannia stood proudly dressed in traditionally masculinise apparel, a female personification of the island and symbol of the British Empire, to adorn our notes so did other strong female forms appear on notes around the world. Born through the same ideals as Britannia came Marianne of France, a goddess of liberty, appearing in Roman style dress on the 50 livre note of in 1792 – seven years before Napoleon seized power.

Britannia, Marianne and their sisters appeared across the world were particularly popular around the mid to end of the nineteenth century. Columbia, the female personification of the United States appeared on the fifteen cent note of the National Bank of New York in 1863. In Austria, the authority of Law appeared in 1866, pointing to a book of law whilst a resentful dragon rests at her feet. The national emblem of Sweden, Svea, first appears on banknotes at around the same time, in 1890, gracing the notes with as much charm as her warrior sisters.

Germania appear the 5 mark note in 1904 with symbols of peace, trade, agriculture and industry and was soon followed by an allegory of victory on the Russian 500 rouble note of 1912, a bejewelled woman holding a sceptre, shield and laurel leaves. A female symbol of prosperity stands opposite her male counterpart, labour, on the 1921 Dutch 10 gulden note and in a touching example from Algeria in 1944 colonial gifts are being handed to a personified mother nation.

All of these faces of allegory serve the same marketing purpose: to represent the ideals of that country in a way which meant business but without the hard edge. But this isn’t the only way that women have been utilised on banknotes.

Faces of labour, plenty and tradition had their places on banknotes of the world. The association of women with bounty and fecundity can be seen in the appearance of women and agricultural harvests in this 1929 example of the Polish 50 złoty note and a 1948 example of a 100 franc note from French West Africa. Perhaps one of the most thought provoking of all in this category is the 1920s 50 mark note from Germany in which a girl in a rose crown holds fruits to her chest.

These female cornucopia are closely connected to the hardworking women toiling the fields on the Syrian 50 pound banknote from 1958 or the Chinese 1960 1 yuan note showing a woman driving a tractor. Other popular depictions of women at work on banknotes include the textile industry, such as in the 5000 franc note of Mali from 1971 and the 1964 10 lek note from Albania, and working on a computer on the 5000 dinar Macedonian note from 1992.

Swaziland’s cultural history is represented by women performing a traditional folk dance on the 1 lilangeni note from 1974 and in 1924 women showing the traditional dress of China appeared on a 10 yuan note.

So what about the women who weren’t representing a country’s ideals, its heritage, culture or wealth? The faces of actual female characters who serve as role models for their predecessors: rather than demonstrating a way of behaving or carrying an important message.

Of course, a queen is a popular choice for a country’s paper money, Queen Elizabeth II has appeared on British banknotes since 1960 but across the world Queen Catherine II of Russia depicted in 1910, Nefertiti of Egypt shown on a 1940s note, Queen Victoria on Australian and Canadian notes of 1860 all beat her to it.

Women who were famous for their hard work rather than sovereignty include the Italian doctor Maria Montessori who developed the Montessori method of education appears on the 1000 lira note from Italy in 1990. The Israeli prime minster Golda Meir (1969-1974) was shown on the 10 new sheqalim note of the bank of Israel in 1985 and an Austrian example on a 100 schilling from 1969 shows the artist Angelika Kauffmann who was born in 1741.

With the disappearance of Elizabeth Fry of the British five pound note another strong woman made history, Caroline Criado-Perez, with a victory through petitioning to keep women on British banknotes and the announcement earlier this year that Jane Austen would appear on the five pound note from 2017. And, not for the first time, it looks as though the trend in Britain is also spreading across the world with Canada now verging on success with a campaign backed by Margaret Atwood to print women on Canadian notes.

So there you have it, perhaps the worth of a woman is more interesting than postage stamps and maybe we can learn a lot if we listen to what those faces are telling us.

About Elizabeth Summerfield

After teaching in Further and Higher Education for ten years, Elizabeth Summerfield moved from the Midlands to a remote farm on the side of a Welsh mountain. She now spends her days writing and researching in a Welsh longhouse which used to belong to her grandparents, they themselves moved from the Midlands thirty years ago from a place which unbeknown to them had great historical significance: they used to own the land on which the Staffordshire Hoard was found.

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