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Symbols on American


Symbols on American

About the Essay
This essay is based on a

one of New York’s oldest and

lecture given by Stephen L.

largest coin and paper money

Goldsmith, on May 22, 2007,

auctioneers and dealers,

at the Federal Reser ve Bank

cosponsored this publication

of Philadelphia. The Reser ve

as part of the Bank’s economic

Bank and R.M. Smythe &

education and public

Company, which at the time was

information efforts.

About the Author
Stephen Lynn Goldsmith is the director of numismatics at Spink USA. Formerly, he was president of American Paper Money & Coin, LLC; executive
vice president and auction director at R.M. Smythe & Company; and director
of numismatics at Stack’s. He is a specialist in the fields of antique stocks and
bonds, bank notes, and coins. He has a B.A. from Brooklyn College. Goldsmith
is also a former president of the Professional Currency Dealers Association
and was lead writer on the association’s first publication, Collecting U.S. Obsolete Currency. He is the editor of Collecting Confederate Paper Money, winner of a
Numismatic Book-of-the-Year Award in 2005, and the editor of An Illustrated
Catalogue of Early North American Advertising Notes. He directed the appraisals of
the coin and currency collections at the New Orleans Branch of the Federal
Reser ve Bank of Atlanta and at the Federal Reser ve Bank of Philadelphia.



aper money has circulated in America at least as
far back as colonial times. But how did American
currency come to look the way it does? What do all
the symbols on our money mean?

Symbolism on the One Dollar Bill
Look at the image of perhaps the world’s most instantly recognizable paper money — the $1 U.S. Federal
Reserve note. What does it mean to you? Despite our familiarity with this particular currency note, many of
us have never looked closely at its design and symbolism. As you’ll learn as you read on, American currency
displays many significant symbols. Once you know what they mean, you may never look at your money in
quite the same way.
Perhaps the most universally renowned symbol
to appear on American
paper money is front and
center on our $1 Federal
Reserve notes. George
Washington, our nation’s
first president, is a nationally recognized symbol of
unity and trust. But he
was not always there.
The $1 legal tender note,
issued by the United States
during the Civil War, was
the first widely circulated
U.S. $1 bill (top of page 3).
It features Salmon P. Chase,
Secretary of the Treasury.
Symbolism was very much
on the minds of Treasury
officials when they were contemplating the design for the Treasury seal (in red on the left side of the note
on page 3). They decided that the number of spikes surrounding the Treasury seal should equal the number
of states in the Union, which was 34 before the start of the Civil War. A problem arose because seven states
had seceded from the Union by February 1861 and four more left in April of that year. However, the patriotic
Treasury viewed the situation as temporary and proceeded to include 34 spikes on its seal. The note shown
on page 3 was issued in 1862.


$1 legal
tender note,
issued in

On the front of today’s $1 note, you see the modern U.S. Treasury
seal (shown at right). The balancing scales represent justice. In the
center of the seal, the chevron’s 13 stars represent the 13 original
colonies. The key underneath is an emblem of official authority.
According to the Treasury Department, the original seal, which
was very similar to the one shown here, was designed by Francis
Hopkinson, a delegate to the Continental Congress. The present,
more streamlined design was approved in January 1968.

Note also the Federal Reserve System seal. Previously, the seal of a Federal
Reserve Bank was printed on each bill of all denominations. But beginning with
the $100 bill in 1996, a general seal representing the Federal Reserve System
began replacing individual Reserve Bank seals, and this general seal is now
used on all of our higher denomination notes. The $1 and $2 bills still carry the
District seals, which feature a letter that indicates the issuing Reserve Bank.
Philadelphia, which is the Third Federal Reserve District, is designated with the
letter C on the note on page 2.

But it is the reverse side of the $1 note that
holds the most meaning. Our Founding
Fathers were deeply aware of the importance
of symbols. In fact, before the adjournment
of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, a
committee was appointed to create a seal that
would symbolize America’s ideals. The committee included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson,
and Benjamin Franklin — three of the drafters
of the Declaration of Independence.


Jefferson and Franklin:
Pharaohs and Turkeys
We know of one connection between ancient Egypt and the origins of American
paper money: the pyramid on the reverse
of the Great Seal. (See text at right.) However, if Benjamin Franklin and Thomas
Jefferson had had their
way, the Great Seal
of the United States
might have featured an
Egyptian pharaoh. Our
notes might also have
featured not the proud
eagle but an entirely
different bird.
The seal that Franklin and Jefferson advocated symbolized an Egyptian pharaoh
sitting in an open chariot with a crown on
his head and a sword in his hand, passing
through the divided waters of the Red
Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. The motto
they favored was “Rebellion to tyrants is
obedience to God.” In fact, Jefferson so
strongly supported this idea that he used
it on his own personal seal.
In addition, Franklin was very much in
favor of using the turkey as America’s
national bird. He expressed this choice
ardently to his daughter in a letter, explaining that
the eagle is
“a bird of bad
moral character.” Franklin
noted that the
turkey, on the
other hand,
is a “more
respectable bird and...a true original
native of America.”


Designing the Seal
However, designing the seal was a difficult and controversial
undertaking that spanned six years and three committees. The
final proposal, as accepted by Congress, was submitted on June
13, 1782, by Charles Thomson, a prominent Philadelphia merchant and secretary of the Continental Congress. He is credited
with finalizing the design — unifying the ideas of the three
committees, their consultants, and artists.
The result was the Great Seal of the United States, and hidden
within it are the messages our Founding Fathers wanted to
send to future generations of Americans. Today, the two most
prominent features on the back of the $1 note are the pyramid
and the eagle, which together constitute the Great Seal of the
United States.

To solve the mystery of what these symbols mean, we go directly to the source, Charles Thomson, who presented his written
description of the Great Seal to Congress on June 20, 1782. The
most striking feature of the front of the seal is, in Thomson’s
words, “an American Eagle on the wing and rising.” The eagle
flies freely, independent of any support, holding in its left talon
13 arrows, signifying war, and in its right talon an olive branch,
signifying peace.
You may think which talon holds the arrows and which holds
the olive branch is of little consequence. But, in the language
of symbols, it is of great significance. The right side signifies
dominance. Therefore, arrows depicted in the eagle’s right talon
can be interpreted as a warlike gesture. Failure to adhere to this
concept almost got the United States into a war.
From 1801 to 1807, the eagles on the backs of our silver coins
were inadvertently shown with the arrows in the right talon

instead of the left. Some European journalists and diplomats interpreted this
as an expression of American belligerence and tried to use it as grounds for
promoting war with the United States. In response, a new design was created
in 1807 for the backs of American silver coins. This time, the olive branch —
representing peace — was placed in the dominant right talon, putting an end
to the journalistic saber rattling. The eagle holds a banner in its beak with the
words “E Pluribus Unum,” which Thomson translates to mean “Out of many,
Silver coin, circa 1801-1807

Thomson goes on to explain that the shield, or escutcheon, on the eagle’s
breast is composed of two major parts: a horizontal blue band, which represents Congress, extending across
the top third of the shield supported by 13 red and white vertical stripes, which represent the 13 original
colonies. The 13 stars above the eagle represent a new constellation taking its place in the universe, in the
same way that a new nation takes its place among the other sovereign nations. The colors also have significance. Blue stands for vigilance, perseverance, and justice; red signifies hardiness and valor; and white
indicates purity and innocence.
The reverse of the Great Seal features an unfinished pyramid, which Thomson states signifies “strength and
duration.” The pyramid is composed of 13 rows of building blocks, on the first of which are the Roman numerals representing 1776. The Latin inscription “Novus Ordo Seclorum” translates to “A New Order of the
Ages.” Thomson explains that this refers to the new form of government. Influenced by the poetry of Virgil,
he composed this motto himself, writing that it signified “the beginning of the new American Era.” At the
top of the pyramid is an eye, with rays that emanate in all directions. Above the eye, the Latin motto “Annuit
Coeptis” translates to “Providence Has Favored Our Undertakings,” which Thomson explains “alludes to the
many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s Role
Now that we know what the Great Seal
stands for, we might ask why it appears on
our paper money. Who made that decision?
As you can see from the image at right,
the first small sized dollar bills issued in
America did not feature the Great Seal or
much of any symbolism at all. Today, paper
money collectors refer to currency with
this design as “funny backs.”
$1 silver certificate, series 1928

This all changed one day in 1934 when Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (who was
later vice president) was waiting to go into a meeting. He picked up a publication describing the Great Seal and
focused on the Latin phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” which we know was intended to mean “A New Order of
the Ages.” But Secretary Wallace interpreted it slightly differently and could not wait to bring to the attention of
President Franklin Roosevelt the Great Seal with its message as he understood it: “The New Deal of the Ages.”


As Freemasons, both Roosevelt and Wallace
saw the symbol above the pyramid as representing the “all-seeing eye,” the Masonic
symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe.
President Roosevelt liked Wallace’s idea very
much — so much so, in fact, that he decided to
replace the design on the reverse of our $1 bills
with something more symbolic and patriotic:
the Great Seal of the United States.
In the initial design of the new currency, the
seal was reversed from how it appears today (as in the note on page 2), with the eagle featured on the left
and the pyramid on the right. President Roosevelt took a keen personal interest in the new design. Looking
at an early version of the new back, we clearly see Roosevelt’s suggested changes indicated in his own handwriting and signed with his initials, FDR. In addition to reversing the positions of the pyramid and the eagle,
Roosevelt also notes that the title “The Great Seal of the United States” should be added below the circles.
The new version was first issued on the series of 1935 $1 silver certificates. These were nearly identical to
the $1 Federal Reserve notes we use today. But one important distinction was still to come.
“In God We Trust” first started to appear on U.S. money during the Civil
War era, largely because of the nation’s increasing religious sentiment. The
motto was used for the first time on the copper two-cent piece in 1864. But it
was not until 1956 that Congress passed a law declaring “In God We Trust”
the national motto of the United States. The motto was first used on paper
money in 1957, when it appeared on the $1 silver certificate.

Symbolism on Early Money
It’s not just our modern, familiar currency whose design holds significance. Early paper money issued by
the Continental Congress also displayed important symbols and mottoes. The images on the fronts of these
notes were all highly symbolic, and each image was paired with a patriotic Latin motto. Most of the designs
can be traced directly back to a book of emblems printed in Europe in the 1600s — a book that was almost
certainly in Benjamin Franklin’s library in Philadelphia. Franklin loved a good riddle, and a pairing of the
Latin phrases with symbols on the notes was almost
certainly his idea.
The continental notes and the symbols that appear on
them give us further insight into what the Founding
Fathers were thinking about when they considered
this very first federal issue. Many of these designs
were the predecessors of the Great Seal.
The February 1776 issue included fractional denominations, including this third of a dollar shown at left.


The front of this note shows the sun shining on a sundial with the Latin word “Fugio” and the English words
“Mind Your Business.” This picture and word puzzle, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, means, “Time flies,
so mind your business.”
The back of the note shows a chain composed of 13 links, each with the name of one of the
13 original colonies. This design, also attributed to Franklin, was used on the first federally authorized coins as well.
The image shown here at left depicts the back of the first American cent, known as
the chain cent. These coins came under strong public criticism because some people
viewed the chain as a symbol of slavery. A year later, new one-cent coins were minted
with a different design on the back — a victory wreath.
As the Revolutionary War proceeded, inflation became a fact of life, and higher denominations of notes were needed. Some of the designs on the higher denomination continental
notes have been attributed to Francis Hopkinson. Some of his designs, shown here on
early continental notes, are viewed as predecessors to the symbols on the Great Seal
and Treasury Seal.
The $40 continental note features the all-seeing eye over 13 stars arranged around an
eternal flame. Also, a stepped pyramid of 13 levels appears on the $50 continental note,
along with the motto “Perennis,” meaning “everlasting.” The $65 continental note depicts a
hand holding a balance scale below the motto “Fiat Justitia,” or “Let justice be done.”

Other Early American Money
Just as the Continental Congress was authorizing the first issues of federal
paper money, individual states were issuing their own paper money. Patriotic
symbols were apparent on these notes as well.
The $5 note issued by Georgia in 1777 features a coiled rattlesnake and the
Latin motto “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit,” meaning “No one provokes me
with impunity.”
The handwritten document pictured at the top of page 8 shows the depreciation of the continental dollar against the Spanish milled dollar, or piece

of eight, between 1777 and 1780. When the continental notes
were first issued, they were well received and circulated near
par value. As time went on, however, British counterfeiting and
other inflationary factors caused the notes to become nearly
worthless. By 1780, it took 4000 continental dollars to buy 100
Spanish milled dollars. By the end of the Revolutionary War,
public confidence in paper money issued by the federal government was at an all-time low. There would be no more widely
circulated federal paper money until the Civil War.
Instead, we entered a period of private and state banking. Paper
money was issued by banks, state governments, local governments, private individuals, and companies. From around 1790 to
1865, the number of paper money issuers grew from a handful to over 8000 different banks and institutions.
In addition, depending on the note and the issuer, currency was often discounted. People had to be knowledgeable about the current worth of various notes from myriad issuers — a particularly overwhelming task
for merchants.
The earliest notes issued by private banks were relatively simple in design and symbolism, and counterfeiters saw this as a golden opportunity. They plagued bank after bank, driving many into insolvency. This
forced the legitimate printers of bank notes to develop more elaborate designs. Many of the notes featured
symbolism that was deeply local in nature.
For example, the early currency of the Windham Bank, in the small eastern Connecticut town of Windham,
features a unique symbol that originated in local folklore.
In 1754, at the time of the French and Indian War, the legend says that two Windham men were returning
home through the woods late one night when they were startled by strange and terrifying noises echoing
through the night air.
The two men rushed home
to sound the alarm for what
they believed to be a large
company of Indians and soldiers coming to attack the
town. The villagers readied
their weapons and prepared
for the worst.
When morning came, they
marched out to confront the
enemy directly, but no enemy was found. Instead, the villagers came upon the source of the commotion in a
nearby pond. It was indeed a battlefield, but the combatants were not soldiers or Indians, but bullfrogs. What
the townspeople of Windham saw shocked them — thousands of dead and dying frogs, some still uttering
war cries. What had happened that night is still not clear. The theory held at the time was that they died
fighting each other, possibly for the small amount of water in the lowered pond.
$5 private bank note, 1850s


The tale quickly spread from town to town and from generation to generation. This strange event became an
important part of Windham’s history. It has been immortalized in poetry and song and even on the local currency. The Windham Bank issued notes prominently featuring a vignette of a frog standing over the body of
another frog to remind everyone of Windham’s famous battle of the frogs.
Other notes feature unique
design elements as well. The
Santa Claus note shown here
is whimsical and entertaining
and very much in demand by
collectors. The Santa Claus
design suggests happiness
and generosity — characteristics not often associated with

$20 private bank note, 1850s

There was more than one independent nation in America issuing
bank notes in the period between
the Revolutionary War and the
Civil War. The Republic of Texas
declared its independence from
Mexico in 1836 and remained an
independent nation until 1845,
issuing its own paper money.
$50 note issued by Republic of Texas, pre-1845

Another government that issued bank
notes in America during the 19th
century was the Confederate States
of America. About a month before the
beginning of hostilities at Fort Sumter, the Confederate Secretary of the
Treasury, C.G. Memminger, ordered
bank notes for the new government
from the National Bank Note Company in New York City. The symbols
he chose for the first issue were
quite appropriate. On the $1000 note
shown here, John C. Calhoun, the
great states’ rights advocate, appears
on the left. Andrew Jackson, seventh
President of the United States and a
staunch supporter of states’ rights,
appears on the right.


The symbolism used on
the 1861 $50 Confederate note (shown on page
9) from the same first
issue should come as no
surprise. It clearly sends
a message about the importance the Confederacy
placed on slavery and
On the other hand, what
could be more symbolically embarrassing than the choice made for the $10 Confederate note? The child in
the lower right corner is quite charming from an artistic point of view. However, at the time the note was
issued, the child was an adult living in Philadelphia — the well-known Unionist and ardent abolitionist Dr.
Alfred Elwyn. The image on the left of this note seems more appropriate: Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, a
senator from Virginia who served as Secretary of State for the Confederacy from 1861 to 1862.

Sometimes the symbolism employed on a
bank note can provoke
a strong reaction from
the public. That was
the case with at least
one of the notes in
the U.S. Educational
series of 1896. The
$1 silver certificate, series 1896
$1 silver certificate in
this series is widely considered one of the most beautiful designs ever used on American paper money. On
it, a woman representing history instructs a boy about the U.S. Constitution, which has been engraved on a
plaque. The background shows the landscape of Washington, D.C.
However, the
$5 note in this
beautiful series became
the subject of
a great deal
of controversy. In the
center of this

$5 silver certificate, series 1896

note is an allegorical female representing electricity as the most dominant force in the world. While classical
female figures appeared on hundreds of different bank notes throughout the 19th century, this particular
note elicited a violent negative reaction at the time from senators’ wives.
The entire
series was
quickly abandoned. The
next $5 silver
was issued
with what the
thought would
be a far less
$5 silver certificate, 1899
symbol — a
Sioux Indian chief. However, workers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing substituted the headdress of
a rival tribe, the Pawnee, on the final image. This switch precipitated not only a political scandal but caused
additional ill will between the Sioux and Pawnee peoples.

Images on Early Federal Reserve Notes
The first series of notes issued
by the Federal Reserve Banks
featured George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, Abraham
Lincoln, Andrew Jackson,
Grover Cleveland, and Ulysses
S. Grant on the fronts.
The backs displayed a far more
symbolic variety of themes. The
eagle carrying the U.S. flag on
the $1 bill radiates confidence
and patriotism. The World
War I battleship on the $2 bill
symbolizes strength and power.
On the $50 bill (shown on page
12), the word “Panama” appears
at the bottom of this beautiful
engraving, since this note was
issued the year that the Panama
Canal was opened.

$1 and $2 Federal Reserve bank notes, series 1918

Other figures have appeared
on the front of higherdenomination Federal
Reserve notes, including
William McKinley, James
Madison, Salmon P. Chase,
and Woodrow Wilson. The
largest denomination note
printed today is the $100 bill,
which features Benjamin
In 1929, when the size of all U.S. currency notes was reduced, the front and back designs of all notes were
standardized. Portraits were placed on the front and monuments or buildings on the back.


Pyramids, eagles, goddesses, and frogs — even Santa Claus. These are just a few of the images that have appeared on American currency over the past three centuries. Some of these symbols are no longer used, but
many of them can still be found on present-day U.S. notes and coins.
Understanding the importance of the symbolism on American money and the meaningful messages it conveys helps us to better appreciate the ideals of hope, optimism, and patriotism our Founding Fathers were
trying to pass on to all future generations of Americans to share.

Other Resources

For more information on the history of money, check out these resources.

Lesson Plans for Teachers


The Functions and Characteristics of Money

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Saturday Sancocho


Money (Everyday Economics series)
(Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas)

Video (DVD free on request)

The Federal Reserve and You
(Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on behalf of the
Federal Reserve System)


American Currency Exhibit
(Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

Money in Motion
(Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia)
U.S. Department of the Treasury
United States Mint
Virtual Money Museum
(Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond)
Revised 4/2014