You’re seeing things: Notes really don’t show a jackass or a devil’s face

Humans see order in chaos and see shapes that don’t exist
By , Coin World
Published : 11/21/16
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It is very human to see things that are not there. That’s why we see fantastic animals in the shapes of clouds or imagine a person’s face in the rocks on Earth’s moon or in a rock formation on our own planet. 

The formal name for this tendency is “pareidolia,” described by experts as a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (for example, the features of the lunar landscape) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.

Patterns of shadow and light, and various shapes, however random, can trigger the part of our visual system that is specialized for facial recognition, researchers believe. The “man” seen in the face of the moon and the “Old Man of the Mountain” in New Hampshire (before it collapsed) and religious figures discerned on toast or walls — these are all the result of pareidolia.

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It’s also why we turn an American eagle into a jackass and Queen Elizabeth II’s hair into a devil’s face on paper money of the United States and Canada.

The Jackass note

Several series of $10 United States notes issued during the last half of the 19th century bear the unflattering nickname “Jackass note.” That’s not because the notes bear a portrait of Sen. Daniel Webster, although Sen. Robert Y. Hayne and other Southerners may have considered Webster something of an ass as he and Hayne debated in 1830 whether states had the power to nullify federal laws.

The note gains its nickname from a small vignette of an American eagle that when inverted, resembles the head of a jackass, at least in the eyes of some. Like seeing the “man in the moon,” people viewing the $10 United States note in an inverted position saw something that was not intended.

The face of this note bears three vignettes.

Webster’s portrait appears to the left. Engraver Alfred Sealey engraved the Webster portrait with its unflinching stare.

To the right is a vignette titled Introduction of the Old World to the New World or alternatively, Pocahontas Presented at Court. The image depicts an American Indian woman being presented before a group of Europeans. The original artist is believed to have been T.A. Liebler and the engraver, W.W. Rice, according to paper money specialist Gene Hessler.

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It is the center vignette at the bottom that causes all the trouble. Henry Gugler engraved a small eagle with upraised wings and head turned back so that the bird is looking over its shoulder. It rests on a shield, whose upper portion, bearing stars, is visible. The eagle holds a ribbon bearing E PLURIBUS UNUM in its beak and the traditional bundle of arrows and branch of peace in its talons. The image is small, barely a third the width of the word WASHINGTON, which appears directly above. All in all, a typical rendering of this American icon.

Until the note is inverted.

When one turns the note upside down, the eagle transforms from an avian to a mammal; specifically, into the head of a donkey, or a jackass. The eagle’s white head and neck become the donkey’s snout and its right eye, the jackass’ nostril. The bird’s breast becomes the donkey’s forehead with its tail feathers becoming the jackass’ right ear. The wings become the donkey’s neck and shoulders.

The vignette’s small size plays a major role in the transformation from eagle to jackass. The human eye resolves the dark and light elements of the bird into something else. However, increase the magnification or size of the vignette and the illusion falls away. The snout becomes a head and neck again, the jackass’ neck a pair of wings and its ear, an eagle’s tail.

The face design was used on five different series — 1869, 1875, 1875A, 1878 and 1880 — issued from just after the Civil War into the first months of the new century before it was replaced with a Series 1901 note bearing a new design. The Bureau printed nearly 55 million of the notes over the decades.

Collectors might wonder, was this deliberate? Did engraver Gugler purposely create an eagle that looked like a jackass when inverted? According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the government agency that printed the notes for decades, no.

“The resemblance of the eagle, in inverted position, to the lowly donkey’s head is purely illusionary.” That’s what a BEP souvenir card issued in 1969 at the American Numismatic Association convention in Philadelphia states. It bears three images of the “Jackass Eagle”: a large one in the center to show the detail and two smaller ones, one in its normal position and a second that is inverted to show the illusion. It was the first BEP souvenir card issued in conjunction with a numismatic convention. The BEP sold 12,347 of the cards.

The Jackass notes are popular with collectors and high quality examples can sell for several thousands of dollars depending on series and condition. 

The so-called Jackass note and the story behind its wonderful little eagle vignette is just one of many that make paper money collecting as much fun as it is. 

But the United States is not the only North American nation to create an unintended impression on the human eye and mind with a paper money vignette.  

Canada’s Devil’s Face notes

When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI, British Commonwealth nations began the process of changing the designs on their coins and paper money. By tradition, at least then, Commonwealth nations always depicting the reigning monarch on their currencies.

As Gene Hessler reported in the March 25, 2002, issue of Coin World, “American Bank Note Co. engraver William Ford engraved the original portrait for the note. However, it was rejected and Canadian George Gunderson, who had considerable stature as an engraver, was asked to prepare the portrait that was used.”

Elizabeth had been depicted on Canadian notes years earlier, but when she was a child. The Series 1935 $20 note depicts the 10- or 11-year-old princess, with other denominations depicting different members of the royal family.

Gunderson, of the British American Bank Note Company, used as a model a photograph of Princess Elizabeth taken in 1951 by Yousuf Karsh, one of Canada’s leading portrait photographers (probably most famous for his portrait of a scowling Winston Churchill). In the photo, the 25-year-old Elizabeth wears a tiara, with curls of her hair arranged along the left side of her face. 

As the firm Canadian Coin & Currency explains at its website, “When one of these [Karsh’s] images was selected for the upcoming series of bank notes, the removal of this tiara was required. Rather than going to the difficulty of having the Queen sit for another photograph, the image was instead sent to Brigden’s Limited (formerly known as the Toronto Engraving Company), a premier engraving and graphic arts firm located in Toronto. The skilled artists at Brigden’s retouched the original negative (Negative # 521976), which required the illustration of the Queen’s hair where the tiara once sat. It is important to note, however, that minimal retouching was required in the curls around Her Majesty’s left ear.”

According to Canadian Coin & Currency, “In looking at the original Karsh photograph, the highlights in Queen Elizabeth’s hair are the same as those that appear in the engraving, and could ultimately be interpreted as a devil face by some.” Gunderson’s accurate engraving of the photo thus captured the highlights of dark and light that would eventually misinterpreted.

In 1954, the first Canadian notes with her new portrait by Gunderson entered circulation. The unwelcome attention, however, took some time to occur.

In the early spring of 1956, people began seeing a “devil’s face” in the queen’s hair. An unfortunate pattern of light and dark lines in the engraving morphed (at least in people’s minds) into a demonic face.

Canadian Coin & Currency cites an article appearing in the March 27, 1956, issue of the Toronto Daily Star, which reported that people had begun noticing a “Devil’s Face, leering from the Queen’s curls,” with the matter reported to officials. It is likely that once news of the “face” appeared, people began paying closer attention to the notes and more began seeing the demonic visage.

As in the United States, the appearance of a “face” in Elizabeth’s hair was entirely accidental and another example of people discerning order where none was intended. 

“Nevertheless,” Hessler wrote, “that portion of the hair on the plate was re-engraved, and notes with a second portrait type were issued. The number of notes that entered circulation is about the same for both types.”

Yves Baril of the Canadian Bank Note Company modified the engraving and new notes were soon printed and released.

The “Devil’s Face” portrait was used on all seven denominations of Bank of Canada notes from $1 to $1,000. Lower denomination notes remain quite affordable today, with Uncirculated $1 issues priced at less than $200, and circulated notes priced at even less.

These United States and Canadian notes are not the only paper money with images that, when viewed with particular attention, can be misinterpreted. Some 1922 German Reichsbanknotes depict a portrait of a solider have shadings of dark and light that can transform into a “vampire” feeding from the soldier’s neck. The image was seen by some as the French feeding on the blood of German citizens in the harsh economic climate that followed the end of World War I.

Collectors seeking something different may find a small collection of all of these notes fun to build. 

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