Fiscal Facial Hair

Last week I wrote a test for my students, and keeping with tradition, added in a cartoon to spice up the drudgery of exams. Of course, I included a strip from my favorite cartoon, Calvin and Hobbes. While it seems most students ignored my attempt to amuse/distract them, I was pleasantly pleased to find one student had doodled mustaches and monocles on the cartoon strip.

Now, I think most of us have, during a period of boredom or spontaneous creativity, been drawn to draw (pun intended) a mustache or two on a unknowing figure on a stray piece of paper. However, how often have you done the same on a piece of legal tender? At one time, the trend was a common one.

Following the American Civil War, the US Treasury released what was known as fractional currency, small denomination bills that ranged from 5 to 50 cents. The reason for such small bills was the shortage of gold and silver following the war, so the treasury simply printed what would normally be minted on paper.


Ten cent bill, c. 1874
image credit: Wikimedia Commons


It’s rather hard to doodle on a nickle (though we’ll get to that), but these new notes were too tempting from the mustache loving doodlers. What resulted ranged from rather basic mischief:

10479880765_dfe271504e_bTo more advanced:

10480075053_908d807eb6_bTo what could be deemed a masterpiece:

10480073893_6f1b346cbb_bThe man on the bills was one William M. Meredith. According to the 1862 Act of Congress:

That the Secretary of the Treasury be, and is hereby authorized, in case he shall think it expedient to procure said notes, or any part thereof, to be engraved, printed, and executed, in such form as he shall prescribe, at the Treasury Department in Washington, and under his direction; and he is hereby empowered to purchase and provide all machinery and materials, and to employ such persons and appoint such officers as may be necessary for this purpose.

Who was Meredith, then, you ask? Well, he was Secretary of the Treasury from 1849-1850. Who better to put on a bill than the man who used to hold the position? Apparently, however, the American populace wasn’t too concerned about soiling the image of esteemed treasury secretaries.

The experiment with fractional currency ended in the United States in 1876, at which point vandalized legal tender fell off for a while. UNTIL the Great Depression that is. During that time, the “hobo coins” trend began, named after the men riding trains who had little else to do than carve designs into the coins in their pockets.

Some designs hearkened back to Greek gods:

10560720054_dd8e781967_bOthers took a more subtle approach:

10560659315_3214e1a3e6_bWhile there were some coins that were just fly:


The coins are now rather valuable, so next time you have a spare minute on the subway and your phone is dead, take out that old crumpled bill and see what magic you can make. Of course, don’t forget that defacing currency is a rather serious offense:

Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

You can see these and more fiscal facial hair images here.