J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

George Washington Launches the Career of Jack Kirby

The Boston 1775 editorial staff continues to tabulate feedback on whether the next series of posts should be about what made Ebenezer Richardson unpopular even before he killed Christopher Seider or about people mucking about with dead bodies (including, at long last, Maj. John Pitcairn’s). So today’s posting is another brief excursion into how the American Revolution has been remembered in comic books.

This is the cover of a pamphlet that H. T. Elmo of Lincoln News produced in 1937 for banks to give away to their customers. The back cover was blank, letting banks add their own name and branch addresses.

The 24-page booklet was arguably in comics form, making “The Romance of Money” the earliest comics artwork by young Jack Kirby, who would go on to help create Captain America, the boy gang genre, the romance comics genre, the Challengers of the Universe, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and other icons. Some people consider Kirby the finest American comics artist. (Me, I admire his output, but he’s never been one of my favorites.)

As we can see, Kirby’s comics career started with George Washington. Almost forty years later, Kirby would draw Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross. But was the material in “The Romance of Money” any less fictional than those figures’ encounter with Captain America? Just a bit. The Mount Vernon website says this about Washington’s coin-tossing:
This myth is often told to demonstrate his strength. The Potomac River is over a mile wide and even George Washington was not that good an athlete! Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, reported in his memoirs that Washington once threw a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar” across the Rappahanock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Rappahannock River at the site of the Washington family homestead today measures only 250 feet across, a substantial but perhaps not impossible distance to throw.
Whoever wrote that 1937 pamphlet did get the name of the river right. On the other hand, the upper blurb about the dollar symbol coming from the letters U and S is a total myth; the dollar sign predated the U.S. of A.

Kirby’s first publishing partner, Joe Simon, also depicted American founders in comics form, in 48 Famous Americans, published in 1947. Like Kirby’s image of Washington, this was created as part of a corporate promotion, in this case for J. C. Penney. And, like Kirby’s depiction of Washington throwing a coin, it emphasizes legend rather than solid history.


Robert S. Paul said...

Did the double-lined dollar sign predate our use of it? Does any other country use that?

I'd always thought that was where that legend started, although it definitely sounds like one of those "legends" started long enough ago for people to believe.

Also, I'm going to write a song called double-lined dollar sign.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the dollar sign was in use before the Revolution. British colonists referred to some Spanish coins as “dollars,” and the $ symbol seems to be related to those coins: it’s now thought to have evolved out of a way of abbreviating “peso” with an overlapping P and S. There doesn’t seem to be any significant difference between the single- and double-line dollar signs.

It took a while for New Englanders to adapt to the U.S. dollar; into the early 1800s many account books around here were still kept in pounds, shillings, and pence. As the American economy grew, more Americans became pleased with the dollar, and eventually it became a symbol of strong (and centigrade) currency. So now many nations use the term “dollar” and the dollar sign.

According to Wikipedia, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged popularized the myth that the dollar sign comes from “U.S.” But that was twenty years after this comic book.

I like “double-line dollar sign.” Nice country/truckin’ vibe.

Charles Bahne said...

For what it's worth, I haven't found any references to any official exchange rate between British pounds and U. S. dollars in the late 1700s or early 1800s. But I have come across some original sources (such as account books, etc.) which imply that the exchange rate around Boston was 1 pound = $3.33333.... Or, to put it another way, 3 pounds = $10.