I’ve always been fascinated with British currency. As a child, I think that I liked them because they looked more like treasure than American currency, but recently I’ve become interested in the social messages of coins. One of the last items in the History of the World in 100 Objects series was a suffragette penny. Suffragettes stamped ‘Votes for Women’ over the face of the Edward VII (leaving the female Britannia on the reverse side un-touched) and circulated the pennies. Because the coins were of such low denomination, and because there were so many of them, the suffragette message spread relatively widely, and less violently than many other suffragette strategies of the time. Currency as a combination of the symbolic and the practical is not a new notion – today’s money is even symbolic of its worth, as no coin is worth its weight in metal, and Douglas Adams even went so far as to claim in his speech at Digital Biota 2 in 1998 that money was an artificial god. But the current British currency makes reference symbolically to another practical process – that of the aging of the queen.
Until 1984, the image of Queen Elizabeth II on British coinage was a young one:
From 1985 to 1997 the image was of a slightly older queen:
And the image that has been in use since 1998 is older still:
It has been over a decade since the last image of Queen Elizabeth was commissioned, and I wonder if they will re-mint the coins any time in the future. The aging Queen both reminds the people who use British coinage daily of the mortality of their monarch – older coins are still in circulation, so it is possible to come across all three versions of the queen in one transaction – but also reminds the Queen and her family of that same mortality. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be the head of a constitutional monarchy, or in a position that a rising number of citizens think should be abolished altogether. I suppose that all people in the public eye have the unique experience of seeing their histories written as they live it, but to have your aging process indelibly marked on metal, which will presumably be around longer than Daily Mail lambasts of celebrities, must be a disconcerting experience.
The financial crisis has sparked histories of money and capital, but I think that historians might also think about the incidental material culture of money, and what it means and meant to interact daily with coins and notes as objects.