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
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
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
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.