Paper Money

Monday Morning Brief for Sept. 19, 2022: Changes ahead, but when?

Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch to be depicted on Bank of England bank notes. With her death, her successor, King Charles III, will become only the second and the first male monarch to appear on the notes.

Original notes from the Bank of England.

Planned changes to Federal Reserve notes and Bank of England notes are in the news this week — the former because of claims from the organization seeking a portrait of Harriet Tubman on the $20 note and the latter because of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

The death of Elizabeth led us to change our editorial calendar for this issue. The feature planned for the World Coins section, originally scheduled to focus on coinage depicting Christopher Columbus, is replaced with one about the portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on UK coinage. We temporarily dropped the “U.S. Type Note of the Month” column for expanded news coverage of the various portraits of the queen on Bank of England notes.

As we began planning our news coverage for this issue and future weekly issues, we re-learned something that is probably a surprise to most people — that Elizabeth is the only monarch to have been depicted on Bank of England notes. Prior to their redesign, Bank of England notes were simply white pieces of currency paper with inscriptions in black ink. They were devoid of the intricate designs of modern Bank of England notes.

Art Friedberg, in his two-page article in the Paper Money section, examines the various portraits of the queen used over the years. Jeff Starck reports on the first portrait of Elizabeth to appear on paper money — as a 9-year-old on a Bank of Canada note.

In the weeks ahead, we will report on the development of the portrait of King Charles III for future Bank of England notes, and likely for the notes of the banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland that still feature a portrait of the reigning monarch.

We will also report on the adoption of a portrait of Charles III for UK coinage, and for the coins of other Commonwealth nations. Expect to see a lot of new coins commemorating Elizabeth II and many featuring a portrait of her successor, Charles III.

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s death led to an apparent huge demand for coins depicting her issued by the Royal Mint. I went to the mint’s website and was greeted with a screen telling me that I was customer 4,xxx in a queue, and that it could be some time before I would gain access to the Royal Mint catalog. Eventually that position in the queue expired and I was given a new number even further back. I gave up (I did not plan to order any coins anyway).

As for the changes to the Federal Reserve notes, Art reports on allegations by the founder of Woman on 20s — which lobbied to replace the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the $20 note with a portrait of a prominent woman, eventually Harriet Tubman. Design changes to Federal Reserve notes of several denominations were announced late in the second term in office of Barack Obama. Many were optimistic that such changes could appear in circulation, or at least be revealed, in a few years. That has not happened.

In fact, changes in the notes proposed much earlier than the introduction of a Tubman portrait have failed to be implemented, and as with the Tubman portrait proposal, originate with the private sector, not the government. In 2002, the American Council of the Blind and two visually impaired individuals filed a suit in federal court seeking to force the government to make Federal Reserve notes identifiable by visually impaired individuals. The denominations of Federal Reserve notes cannot be identified by touch alone, unlike the paper money of many nations.

The U.S. government opposed making such changes, but in 2008, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the ACB and ordered the government to begin the process of implementing such changes. Fourteen years later, no such changes have been implemented, though the government makes electronic note readers available to those who need the help.

Women on 20s speculates that recalcitrance is paired with problems implementing a tactile device on Federal Reserve notes to drive the overall slowness in introducing new designs. Given that two decades after the filing of the original suit by the ACB, no changes have been made, the group may have a point. However, the redesign of Federal Reserve notes has always taken a long time, and a lot of factors are involved, including political factors brought about by the changes in the leadership of the Executive Branch.

One thing is certain, though. Coins and bank notes depicting King Charles III will enter circulation years before any newly designed Federal Reserve note is released. 
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