Bank of Canada notes have been in our wallets for nearly 90 years. The first series was designed to inspire confidence in a promising future.
Notes for an era of economic recovery
Between 1929 and 1934, Canada was in the midst of the Great Depression. Demand for Canadian exports fell, and unemployment rose to staggering new levels. During this time, the government of then-Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett passed the Bank of Canada Act, paving the way for the creation of Canada’s central bank. Among its many responsibilities, the Bank of Canada became the sole issuer of Canadian bank notes, the first of which began circulating on March 11, 1935. The design of these notes can tell us a lot about Canadian society and the country’s identity at the time. The notes can also show how the new central bank presented a road map for Canada’s economic recovery.
Designing new Canadian notes
After the government released a tender for the design of its new bank notes in July 1934, two printing companies submitted proposals: the British American Bank Note Company (BABN) and the Canadian Bank Note Company (CBN), who worked closely with its parent company the American Bank Note Company. The Minister of Finance decided to work with both, awarding a contract for the design and production of the $1, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000 notes to CBN, while giving BABN responsibility for the $2, $5 and $10 notes.
The 1935 bank note series has several distinguishing features. It is the only series of Bank of Canada notes to:
- print separate English and French notes
- include a $25 bill
The Bank chose the distinctive $25 denomination for a commemorative note marking King George V’s silver jubilee. The portraits on the notes feature members of the Royal Family and two Canadian prime ministers. For the designs on the backs of the notes, both CBN and BABN brought together imagery from stock catalogues filled with engraved vignettes and other graphic elements. Though the printing companies directed the design process, the Minister of Finance, a deputy or then-Bank of Canada Governor Graham Towers provided the final approval of the notes’ designs.
The anatomy of a bank note
A bank note’s appearance is critical to establishing trust between the currency issuer and user. For a bank note to work as intended, it must look like a bank note. Individuals expect their notes to have:
- a portrait
- a clearly marked denomination, represented in a “counter”
- the name of the issuer
- recognizable imagery
Accordingly, each of these elements was given careful consideration during the design process for the Bank of Canada’s 1935 notes. Though the vignettes are of modern subjects—for example, “modern inventions” on the $50 note—these subjects are represented by classical allegorical figures dressed in Greek or Roman robes.
Iconography and Canadian identity
The Royal portraits on 8 of the 10 denominations affirm Canada’s ties to the British Empire. But the back vignettes highlight the country’s natural resources and industries. They position Canada and its economy as a place of innovation and technological advancement. The subjects of the back vignettes provided a vision of Canada as a modern industrial economy, poised to recover from the Great Depression—a recovery that the country’s new central bank would lead. By including images related to industry, innovation and natural resources, the central bank signalled that Canada had the necessary skills and assets to make a strong recovery.
Images of industry
So what exactly can these images tell us about Canada’s economy and culture in the 1930s? At that time, farming products made up 48% of Canadian exports, so naturally 4 of the 10 notes refer to agriculture, including images of produce, grain, fruit trees and farming tools.
But the Depression hit the industry hard: the collapse of international trade combined with successive years of crop failures due to droughts, hailstorms and pests battered the grain-producing Prairie provinces in the early 1930s. Within that context, the allegory of fertility on back of the $500 is forward-looking and maybe even a little hopeful.
A healthy agriculture industry was key to Canada’s economic recovery. To that end, Prime Minister Bennett created the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935 to stabilize commodity prices and regulate quality. The organization became the primary buyer and seller of Canadian wheat and barley. The “testing the grain” allegory on the $20 note shows a man presenting a bushel of grain to a seated figure. Whether by coincidence or not, the image subtly references this key development in the industry.
The imagery on the notes refers not only to Canadian industries themselves but also to people’s role in the economy. The vignettes representing “electric power” (on the $5 note) and “commerce and industry” (on the $100 note) superimpose male allegorical figures against two landscapes: a natural one and an industrial one, respectively. Despite their different settings, the compositions of these images send a similar message: that humans (or at least, men) exert control over their world. They emphasize the role of the individual and of hard work in Canada’s economic recovery.
The vignette chosen for the $1,000 note, “security,” most explicitly refers to the Bank of Canada’s role as the country’s new central bank. Along with the issuance of bank notes and other functions, the Bank also serves as a lender of last resort, responsible for making sure the financial system functions smoothly. This theme was chosen for the $1,000 note, a denomination commonly used at the time to settle accounts between banks. An earlier model for the $1,000 that CBN developed but discarded featured a lumber allegory, which was more closely aligned with the themes on the other notes.
Bank notes: A part of our visual culture
Images of industry appear elsewhere in the art and visual culture of 1930s Canada, including in public murals, sculptures and monuments. In fact, the façade of the Bank of Canada’s headquarters includes bronze sculptures featuring allegorical representations of Canadian industries, just like on the 1935 bank note series. Together, these images tell a story of Canadian cultural identity at a difficult time in the country’s history.
New Acquisitions—2022 Edition
It’s a new year—the perfect time to look back at some notable artifacts the Museum added to the National Currency collection from 2022. Each object has a unique story to tell about Canada’s monetary and economic history.
Money: it’s a question of trust
The dollars and cents we use wouldn’t be worth anything to anybody if we didn’t have confidence in it. No matter if it’s gold or digits on a hard drive, public trust is the secret ingredient in a successful currency.