Money may be the root of all evil, but what is the root of money? It exists in a strange gray zone between reality and illusion; the definitive token of worth, it is intrinsicall y worthless. Unraveling the dizzyingly complex mechanics of money is not easy; indeed, like a car or a computer, as long as it continues to work properly, most people feel no need to even try. I certainly never had—until recently, that is, when a friend introduced me to an obscure little piece of Americana called the Hobo Nickel. What started as a glancing interest in a modest, oddball collectible ended up provoking profoundly tangled questions about what money is and how it functions. Now I fear I will never be able to look at my pocket change in the same way again.
First minted between 1913 and 1938, the "Buffalo" or "Indian Head" nickel was designed by James E. Fraser, a former assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The coin's obverse, or "heads," side featured a Native American profile that was said to be a composite of three individuals from three different tribes—an Ogalala named Iron Trail, a Northern Cheyenne known as Two Moons, and Big Tree, a Seneca that had a brief career in 1920s silent movies. The reverse side of the coin was an image of a bison named Black Diamond, who then lived in New York's Central Park Zoo.
The coin was relatively plentiful—over 1.2 billion were minted during the 25 years of its run. However, a small number of them were adapted by the nation's then-significant population of itinerant workers, both as a mode of craft and a kind of parallel currency. (During the Depression as many as one out of every five able-bodied individuals was idle; thousands took to riding the rails in search of temporary work as a way of life.) Often using little more than a pen-knife, many of these drifters painstakingly altered the extremely hard copper-nickel alloy, transforming the Indian's head into profile portraits of friends and loved ones (both male and female), of other hobos, or of themselves. Rare examples also feature alterations of the "buffalo," typically into donkeys or elephants. These "Hobo Nickels" were a way for the vagabonds to increase the value of the coin so that it brought a more advantageous exchange when used to barter for food and drink, or for lodging or transportation.
For today's coin collectors and scholars (including the 350 or so
aficionados that make up the Original Hobo Nickel Society, Inc., in
which my friend has become a member-in-good-standing), these so-called
hobo nickels fall within the category of exonumia, defined by
numismatists as "objects of historical interest that resemble coins or
currency." Some have fetched thousands of dollars at auction as
examples of vernacular American craft.
From the first examples of state-sanctioned currency in
the 5th century B.C., the guarantee of a coin's value was the precious
metal from which it was made; insofar as individuals valued gold or
silver by weight, a gold or silver coin was equally valuable. But, of
course, gold and silver are inherently not really worth anything
either. They are simply socially accepted symbols of value that, in
themselves or in the doubly symbolic form of coinage, function as a
transactional medium that allows individuals to determine the manner in
which different kinds of goods can be exchanged fairly. My wheat; your
wood; her goat—despite their obvious differences, each is worth
something relative to the other. This worth is based on a complicated
combination of factors, from the availability or scarcity of the
materials involved to the amount of time and labor necessary to produce
the particular commodity in question to the desirability of that
product. Money is the social means by which these comparative values
are coherently expressed and their circulation facilitated.
This functional structure is so ubiquitous, so much a
part of our everyday lives, that it almost defies analysis. Part of the
reason for this is the fact that as our system of commerce has evolved
and become more sophisticated, it has also become increasingly
abstracted. American coins long ago ceased to be made of actual gold or
silver; today they simply are gold- or silver-colored. And the raw
materials and labor they are designed to draw equivalencies between are
virtually invisible to the contemporary consumer. The distance between
what money is and what it represents is greater than it has ever been.
In their simple, unassuming way, Hobo Nickels create a
small rupture in this seamless value-identity of money. My friend noted
that one of the first things that drew her to the nickels was the
frisson she felt in seeing something we regard as uniform and immutable
defaced. Based on the high prices paid for mis-struck or poorly cut
coins on the collectibles market, she is clearly not alone in her
response to this disfigurative gesture. But I have come to believe that
there is more to this. It is not only an object that is deformed by
Hobo Nickels, but also the theoretically immutable system of value that
the object represents. They turn a token of commodification into the
commodity itself; transform a symbol of labor into a product of
labor—perhaps most amazing of all, they manage to make money actually
Jeffrey Kastner, a contributing editor of Art & Text,
writes on contemporary art and culture for publications including the Economist and the New York Times. He lives in New York.
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