Paper Money

Tubman on $20 not only change in store for U.S. notes

Harriet Tubman will dislodge Andrew Jackson from the $20 note face, after a decision by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

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The long neglected recognition on paper currency of the role of women in U.S. history was rectified with a vengeance by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on April 20 when he announced that future $5, $10 and $20 notes will all prominently feature women in their design. The decision ushers in the most radical transformation of American paper money since it was changed to the current size in 1928. 

As has been widely reported, the $10 note will be the first to be revamped. Although Alexander Hamilton will remain on the face of the new note, the vignette of the Treasury Department building on the back will now serve as the backdrop to an image of the historic March 3, 1913, march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the Treasury Department and will honor the leaders of the suffrage movement — Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. 

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The new face on the $20 bill will be Harriet Tubman, escaped slave, leading abolitionist and a conductor of the Underground Railroad who was personally responsible for the freedom of hundreds of slaves. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse, a cook, and a scout who gathered intelligence for the Union cause. The back will have images of the White House and Andrew Jackson. 

The decision to place Tubman can be seen as a victory for the Women on 20s movement, who spearheaded the change and whose online poll received over 600,000 nominations, with Tubman’s 118,328 votes defeating Eleanor Roosevelt by 7,000.

The $5 note, which was not widely discussed, will also change. The note’s face will keep a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, while the back, retaining the Lincoln Memorial, will be redesigned to honor events held there that helped to shape American history and democracy. Included will be some of the people involved in those events, such as Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Not since the Series 1896 $1 silver certificate Educational notes, when Martha and George Washington shared the back, has United States paper currency shown a woman. Lew’s decision was the culmination of 10 months of debate and controversy. In June he declared that a woman would be on a $10 bill in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The announcement indicates that Lew has been consistent in his thinking all along — the success of the play Hamilton probably had nothing to do with the decision.

Despite stories to the contrary, Lew consistently made clear since at least July that Hamilton would remain part of the note, that the additional subjects on that note would be an added design feature, and that he was also looking at other denominations. 

In an April 20 letter that Lew issued with his announcement, he disclosed that he has directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to speed up plans for the redesign of the $20, $10, and $5 notes, work has begun on initial concepts for each, and that the anticipation was that final concept designs for the three will all be unveiled in 2020. He also said that the goal “is to have all three new notes go into circulation as quickly as possible, while ensuring that we protect against counterfeiting through effective and sophisticated production.”

The unforgiving reality of the times is that designing a note with anti-counterfeiting and tactile features for the 21st century, with its many security and compatibility requirements, is more complex than merely replacing one picture with another. The Treasury Department is unequivocal in maintaining that notes are designed around required security features and not vice versa. 

Another necessity is that all new notes maintain the look and feel of U.S. paper currency. A concept typically goes through dozens of versions and several years of extensive testing before anything is presented to the secretary of the Treasury for approval. 

An added burden for U.S. paper currency is that it is used internationally. In many smaller or economically troubled nations it is the de facto currency of choice.

The time gap between concept and reality for a new note may seem long, but a look at the history of the new series of Swiss bank notes that made its debut on April 12 with the 50-franc denomination is illustrative. Planning for that new six-note series began in 2004, was announced in 2005 and will not be completed until 2019, a span of 14 years. 

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