Currency for a modern world

Though it's recently brightened up a bit of late, the color of money here in the U.S. is still on the drab side, not at all like the bills you can find in wallets overseas. Rita Braver takes a look:

These days American money is all about our celebrated statesmen: Washington, Lincoln, Franklin.

But once upon a time our currency was more adventuresome, featuring Native Americans, the Pilgrims, Martha Washington, and Lewis and Clark! And back at the end of the 19th century, there was an inventive line of bills known as the "Education Series."

"The name of this particular design is actually 'Electricity presenting light to the world,'" said U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios. "So you can see the allegorical figure, she's literally holding a light bulb."

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The 1896 "Educational Series" five-dollar note.
CBS News

We could understand why Rios (whose signature you'll find in your wallet today) looks back longingly at the money of yesterday.

Braver said, of the bills featuring cherubs and partially-clothed women, "To tell you the truth, this looks a lot more exciting than our current currency."

In 1929 we got the dollar we know today, and the look hasn't changed much. But see what the rest of the world is spending: colorful and creative bills, bank notes, graced with birds and beasts, technology, even sports scenes.

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International Bank Note Society

"A banknote could be the calling card for what that country represents in the international market," said Alan Newman, director of design at De La Rue, a British firm that's designed paper money for more than 150 countries. "So you're trying to capture the culture of that particular country."

Newman's company has helped create or print the British pound, the Icelandic krona, and two-time Banknote of the Year winner, the Kazakhstani Tenge.

De La Rue helped create the new Libyan dinar, created after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

"So on the front there's a celebratory image of a crowd scene," he said, "and on the back depicts the 17 doves above the new Libyan flag."

As for who appears on the most currency worldwide, for decades it's been Queen Elizabeth, what with the reach of the British Commonwealth.

In the U.S., the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces $1.3 billion worth of currency a day.

A new face on currency

Who would you most like to see featured on U.S. paper money?

Director Larry Felix says our current focus is on using technology to thwart counterfeiters, as in the new $100 bill:

"In this blue ribbon, it contains hundreds of thousands of microlenses," Felix demonstrated. "When you tilt the note left and right, the images actually move up and down."

But we've still got Ben Franklin.

Canada not only put an astronaut on its $5 bill, but also beamed the news from space. "I just want to tell you how happy I am to be able to see Canada's achievements in space highlighted in our money," International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield said -- in orbit -- last April.

But we Americans can only dream of what could be. In fact, a few years back when the website Dollar Rede$ign Project put out a call for designs to update the dollar, suggestions poured in. How about the Statue of Liberty? Amelia Earhart? Marilyn Monroe?

But officials say that changing the images on U.S. bills would become a political quagmire.

Besides, they insist, the world's most trusted currency needs to keep its somber and iconic look.

"One thing that people do rely on when they look at U.S. currency is that familiarity," said Rios. "And so when you go overseas, they may not know who [Benjamin Franklin] is, but they know that they're going to look for it on the $100 note every time."

And so that's why you can bet your bottom dollar that our money will keep its iconic look.


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