Thursday, August 12, 1999

George Washington and the Currency of Fame

Washington College Hosts Smithsonian’s Numismatic Exhibit

Chestertown, MD — Money does make things happen. From his Revolutionary War headquarters in New York, General George Washington granted his name and the sum of fifty gold guineas to establish a liberal arts institution in Chestertown, Maryland. Today, Washington College is still educating responsible leaders for a changing world. In the 1790 census, this colonial port was the center of population in the new United States of America.

Later, as President Washington shaped the new democracy and advocated the establishment of the U. S. Mint, he is said to have donated his own table silver to be melted down and stamped into coinage. This governmental institution helped break the new nation’s dependency for currency on foreign countries and sparked new creativity and technology in the art of designing, stamping and engraving currency.

While he characteristically rejected the trappings of royalty and disliked the monarchical practice of having rulers appear on the nation’s money, Washington’s image has been represented on a remarkable array of American coins, medals, and paper money.

This fall, Washington College is organizing an exhibition of material on loan from the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which surveys images of George Washington on currency from the time of the United States’ founding to the post-Civil War period. Also featured in the exhibition are an English guinea, fifty of which Washington gave to help found the College in 1782, and the recent issue of the U.S. Mint of a coin commemorating the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death.

The exhibition is on display in the gallery of the Chestertown Bank on High Street in Chestertown from September 2nd through October 29th, during banking hours. Extended hours are offered for visitors to the Chestertown Candlelight Tour on September 18th and the Chestertown Wildfowl Show on October 22nd and 23rd.

The practice of using the image of Washington reflects the enormous admiration 19th-century Americans had for their first president and his broad appeal as an icon for various ideologies, notes Donald A. McColl, the assistant professor of art history at Washington College who is curating the exhibition with the assistance of students from the departments of art and history.

From Indian Peace medals to Civil War "dog tags," Washington has been seen as, among other things, Pater Patriae, new Cincinnatus, friend of commerce, and model of temperance. At the same time, his changing image bears witness to a progression in the quality of American currency from the period of dominance of British and other mints to the time when the United States boasted some of the finest designers, engravers, and die cutters in the world.

"Some of the objects in this exhibit are quite rare," notes McColl, "and the engraved bank notes in particular are quite beautiful. What is especially interesting, though, is that these specimens had a ‘currency’ in the culture, if you will. Each piece tells you about the time in which it was made."

This exhibition is sponsored by Washington College as part of a national observation of the bicentennial of George Washington's death in December 1799. For more information, please call Nancy Nunn at Washington College, at 410-778-7139.

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