Dr. Sara Josephine Baker for the New Ten

I’m a little surprised at how excited I am for the new ten dollar bill.  I guess I like money? A brief stir around this issue about a year ago nearly got me writing about it then, and now I get a second chance.

American money

The front is great but who are those guys? They’re Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse. Steamboat and telegraph, I think? Thanks Wikimedia!

A look at Twitter confirms that there are a lot of issues on the table with this; some of them I want to deal with briefly and others I am going to stick my neck out on.  It should be the twenty, but I don’t have a lot to say about that.  I’m excited either way.  I also think it’s ridiculous to argue that Hamilton should stay because of his historic significance.  Seven portraits aren’t supposed to constitute an education in American history.  Banknotes used to change all the time.  If you can name every single person who was ever on one, maybe I’ll hear you out on this.

I also think that it’s wrong that there are no people of color on the money and I respect the arguments for Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and, a tangent for the moment, Martin Luther King.  I’m ashamed that there must be other obvious choices I’m not thinking of. 

This, however, is complicated by my feeling that the people on our money should be public servants: elected officials, that is, and people who actually work for the government.  There are people out there who seem to think that the government should scarecely exist and I would hate to give them a shred of satisfaction in this regard.  The Swiss put a famous myrmecologist, or ant scientist, on a thousand franc note, and Jane Austen is to be on a ten pound note in England, though that effort is not without its critics.  I’d love to see Mark Twain on a bill; it’s a great tradition, but it’s not our tradition.  Our tradition is old fashioned looking money with statesmen on it, and it’s a good tradition.

So who can we put on the ten?  My nomination is Sara Josephine Baker. She was born in 1873 to a Quaker family in New York.  She became a doctor and went to the New York Department of Public Health.  Working in infamous slums she saved thousands of babies from blindness and death.  Twice she was involved in catching the pitiable but no less terrifying Typhoid Mary, a cook who by a quirk of the immune system remained healthy while spreading typhoid fever and was ultimately imprisoned for life.  Baker broke down sexist barriers to teach at New York University.  It’s not entirely clear, and I don’t know much about it, but if chosen she might be the first lesbian on our money.  Her autobiography, Fighting for Life, was reissued by New York Review Books not long ago.

What do you think?  Am I being too conservative on this?  Am I crazy to think that it’s worth celebrating people who work for the government?  Maybe we should have a series of blacklisted and harassed artists on the currency.  Amazingly, Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers died last week or so; hers is a voice that takes me way back.  Sara Josephine Baker just strikes me like no other name I’ve seen out there.  Who do you think is the perfect woman for the ten dollar bill?

Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.


I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?