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Symbolism and the $1 Bill

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Crack open your wallet, pull out everyone's favorite portrait of George Washington, and be prepared to learn about some odd symbolism that probably seemed perfectly normal in the 18th century. Here are the explanations behind some of the more baffling parts of our nation's smallest bills.

What's that weird pyramid drawing on the reverse of the bill?

The two circular drawings on the reverse of the bill are actually parts of the two-sided Great Seal of the United States. Although we don't see the entire seal outside of our wallets too often, the notion of having a great seal is actually as old as the country itself. The Continental Congress passed a resolution on July 4, 1776, to create a committee to design a great seal for the fledgling nation, and heavy hitters John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson got the first crack at creating the seal.

dollar-seal

Congress wasn't so keen on the design these big names brought back, though, and it took nearly six years and several drafts to finally find a suitable seal. Congress finally approved of a design on June 20, 1782.

What's the story behind the Great Seal of the United States?

sealAccording to the State Department, which has been the official trustee of the seal since 1789, both the obverse (front) and reverse (back) of the seal are rich with symbolism. The obverse picturing the eagle is a bit easier to explain. The bird holds 13 arrows to show the nation's strength in war, but it also grasps an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 olives that symbolize the importance of peace. (The recurring number 13, which also appears in the stripes on the eagle's shield and the constellation of stars over its head, is a nod to the original 13 states.) The shield floats unsupported over the eagle as a reminder that Americans should rely on their own virtue and strength.

The symbolism of the pyramid on the seal's reverse is trickier. The pyramid has 13 steps—the designers apparently never got tired of the 13 motif—and the Roman numeral for 1776 is emblazoned across the bottom. The all-seeing Eye of Providence at the top of the pyramid symbolizes the divine help the early Americans needed in establishing the new country. The pyramid itself symbolizes strength and durability.

The divine overtones don't stop with the unblinking eye, though. The Latin motto Annuit Ceptis appears over the pyramid; it translates into "He [God] has favored our undertaking." The scroll underneath the pyramid reads Novus Ordo Seclorum, or "A new order of the ages," which was meant to signify the dawn of the new American era.

How did the seal end up on our dollar bill?

We can thank former Secretary of State Cordell Hull's busy schedule for that one. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace had to wait for a meeting with Hull in 1934 and decided to kill time by thumbing through a State Department pamphlet on the Great Seal. The pamphlet contained an illustration of the reverse side of the seal with the pyramid, and Wallace was quite taken with the drawing. He took the seal to President Franklin Roosevelt and suggested the country mint a coin using the two sides of the seal.

FDR liked the seal, too. (Roosevelt and Wallace were both Masons and loved the all-seeing eye part of the reverse design, which echoed the concept of the Great Architect of the Universe.) He thought the seal should be on the reverse of the dollar bill rather than a coin, but he was worried the mystical imagery would offend Catholics. After Postmaster General James Farley assured FDR he didn't think his fellow Catholics would have any problem with the design, Roosevelt approved a new dollar bill design that first appeared in 1935.

Did the Founding Fathers swipe any ideas from a magazine?

Possibly. The familiar E Pluribus Unum motto that the eagle holds in its beak underscores the union and togetherness of the 13 colonies. It might also underscore early Americans' love of periodicals.

According to the State Department, recent historical research has indicated that this Latin motto may have been borrowed from Gentlemen's Magazine, a London publication that ran from 1732 to 1922.

The magazine was popular in the colonies, and its title page always carried the E Pluribus Unum motto.

Why don't the dates on the front of the bills change that often?

At the lower right of the portrait on the bill's obverse you'll see the word "Series" and a year. You might notice that these don't change each year the way the numbers on minted coins do. Why not?

According to the Treasury, the series date only changes when there's a new design for a bill, a new Treasurer of the United States, or a new Secretary of the Treasury. (These are the two officials whose signatures appear on either side of the portrait.) The series year itself changes when the Secretary of the Treasury changes, while a change in the Treasurer of the United States means that the series year remains the same, but a suffix letter gets tacked onto the end of the year.

What are the various other numbers on the obverse of the bill?

The bill's serial number is the most prominently displayed set of digits on the dollar, but they're not alone. If you take out a dollar, you'll notice there are four large numbers in the corners of the bill's open space. Like the encircled letter to the left of Washington's portrait, FW-dollarthese numbers tell which Federal Reserve Bank issued the note. (Each Fed's number corresponds the letter of the alphabet assigned to the bank, with A=1, B=2, and so on.)

The tiny letters and numbers that appear on the top left and bottom right of the bill's obverse indicate the position of the note on the Treasury's printing plates. If your dollar bill has a tiny "FW" before this code, those letters indicate that it was printed at the Treasury's facility in Fort Worth, Texas, rather than in Washington, D.C.

See Also: The Curious Case of the $2 Bill

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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