Greenberg: Will coronavirus end the use of paper money?
Paper money is fundamentally dirty. Struggling businesses usually don’t mind, but amid COVID-19, some are foregoing cash sales in lieu of contactless smartphones or plastic. If cash is a vector of infection, should we socially distance from it?
Although the World Health Organization has not advised banning paper money, it has stressed the need for handwashing after touching cash, especially before handling food. Some central banks are deploying measures to sterilize paper money with heat or UV light. The Federal Reserve began a seven to 10-day quarantine for U.S. dollars returning to the country from Europe and Asia several weeks ago.
Even before the pandemic, paper money was not clean. Recent studies show that over 90% of U.S. paper money contains bacterial colonization, mostly from Staph aureus, Salmonella and E. coli.
And yet, as the primary symbol of the stability and strength of the American economy, federal reserve notes are contested cultural space and often resistant to change. Think for example of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delaying placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. As a result, U.S. paper money has looked much the same for over 50 years, with only a few minor, anti-counterfeiting updates.
But for much of American history, public health epidemics regularly transformed the production and circulation of paper money as the government sought to maintain an efficient and safe economy. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an important opening for officials to once again reassess how the public interacts with its money and update the currency system to meet the demands of the moment.
Dirty money is as old as the country, and there is precedent for disease altering its circulation. Constantly short of cash to pay for the Revolution, each of the original 13 states (and Vermont) circulated their own notes in addition to the famously inflationary Continentals issued by Congress. It was not always a smooth process. When smallpox hit New Bern in the spring of 1779, it disrupted the work of printer James Davis who was fulfilling an order for millions of dollars of North Carolina paper money. With local funds for the Revolutionary War effort running low and fears of infected cash, state officials quickly shifted production of new, clean money 90 miles south to Wilmington.
In the 19th century, as doctors began to probe the transmission of diseases, dirty money became seen as a public health threat.
During a cholera outbreak in 1849, Thomas Buckler, the elitist physician at the Baltimore Almshouse, blamed the epidemic on the “circulation of bank notes, of a low denomination.” His widely read observations posited that impoverished, urban residents unknowingly spread disease with cheaply produced paper money. Buckler’s argument even influenced some legislators who called for removing small denomination bills from circulation in favor of more hearty metal coins. They used paternalistic language to argue that such a system would maintain the proper balance between safety and economic growth. Merchants could still utilize large denomination notes to conduct their business, while the poor would be protected from dirty, troublesome bank notes.
Most state governments attempted to institute these small-denomination regulations, but they were short-lived due to resistance from consumers over a lack of available coins to make the prohibitions work properly.
Another worry in the antebellum era was for the health of clerks who handled a large amount of bank notes. The deaths of a bank teller in Columbus, Ohio and a Boston auction house employee were blamed on smallpox contracted through infected paper money. In 1859, Peterson’s Counterfeit Detector warned people who “handle bank notes, not to wet their thumbs while counting the bills,” if the “thumb comes in contact with the tongue after handling a note from the pocket of a man infected with the small pox, the infection is as sure to take effect as the inoculation of a child.” Unfortunately, the government did little to address the problem. Before the Civil War, state-regulated banks printed their own notes and federal officials played almost no role in regulating paper money.