Paper Money

Who is in your wallet: Ranking portraits on notes

Swedish actress Greta Garbo, who appears on the 100-krona bank note of Sweden issued in 2016, is one of a tiny number of “performers” depicted on current bank notes.

Original images courtesy of Sveriges Riksbank.

Some might assume that when it comes to the subjects on bank notes, leaders of nations, whether royal or political, dominate as subjects. Depending on how you look at it, that is debatable, says the digital publication, The Pudding, a journal that labels itself an “internet rabbit hole.”

It did a survey of 241 individuals on 236 bank notes from 38 countries in every region of the world, and the results may be surprising. A feature called “Who is in Your Wallet?” found that, not surprisingly, men outnumbered women by 190 to 51. But who these people are is another story.

Heads of government were in second place, not first, surpassed by writers, who made up 19% of the total, with 45 people from 23 countries. It was also the most common profession for the women depicted on the notes and was second for men. This was followed by 27 politicians, including Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, and four women — Rose Lomathinda Chibambo, the first female cabinet minister of Malawi, and Agnes Macphail and Edith Cowan, the first elected women to the parliaments of Canada and Australia. Next with 25 names was a category called “founders” that included Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, and then by a group of 21 revolutionaries.

The 16 names in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics category edged military personalities, who were tied with visual artists, each with 13 names. Musicians and monarchs were both represented by 12 people, although Queen Elizabeth II was counted only once despite appearing on the currency of England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The list was rounded out by activists (four), educators (four), religious figures (three), and performers (three). The most recognizable were Eva Peron for Argentina, who was described as an activist, and the Swedish actress Greta Garbo.

The “other” category had five people, including the scaler of Mount Everest, Edmund Hillary.

 If those involved in governance in one form or another (heads of government, politicians, founders, and monarchs) were included in one category it would amount to 103 individuals, or 42% of the total. In this case, writers would still be second.

To be featured on a note, it appears to help if you were the first to do something, as were 29% of those on the list. Among the examples given besides Hillary, were Nobel laureates, indigenous central bank governors, the author of a dictionary, and being the first female to do something in a multitude of categories.

Of all the notes, 96% of the bank notes were issued after the person on them had died, 81 of them more than 100 years earlier. Queen Elizabeth II is the only one alive today.

The full, detailed interactive list is here.
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