My fascination with money as an object of beauty started with the tooth fairy. Every time I lost a molar, she slipped a Kennedy half-dollar under my pillow in its place, along with a note written in a script that, come to think of it, looked suspiciously like my mother’s. The morning after, I would weigh the 50-cent piece in my hand. It felt heavy—important. Something to be savored, not spent. And so they came to be tucked away in a box, like rare jewels from the Nile instead of a novelty.
Bernard von NotHaus, the subject of deputy editor Daniel S. Comiskey’s “Mad Money,” created a currency that has become, with its downfall at the hands of the federal government, something of a novelty itself. His Liberty Dollar bills and coins—once backed by silver—now circulate on eBay for double or triple their worth instead of through the pockets of Americans, as NotHaus had originally envisioned. Handling a painstakingly designed Liberty in the office, even Daniel couldn’t deny his admiration for its craftsmanship. “It sounds like you have the fever,” said one of our colleagues. Daniel answered, “I do!”
My mother has a bit of the fever, too, collecting money in all its global forms. She has Mexican pesos and now-defunct Italian lire and Lincoln wheat pennies. She has a stack of every state-themed quarter and gold presidential $1 coin released so far by the U.S. Mint. From that interest, she spawned two children who couldn’t approach money more differently. In our youth, when we passed the Jolly Time arcade, my brother would sputter, “Got a quarter?” and rush in to play Pac-Man. My parents, fair to the core, gave me an equal amount. Usually, I pocketed my coin and watched my brother work the joystick, pitying him as I had Pinocchio when the puppet fell into the clutches of Pleasure Island.
Reading Daniel’s story on the Liberty Dollar, I realized that in my enduring frugality, I hadn’t considered one thing: whether American cash will last. Sure, NotHaus’s predictions of the dollar’s demise and the need for a gold standard are a little out there. But the greenback doesn’t go nearly as far these days as it did in decades past. Even my beloved Kennedy half-dollars, once mostly silver and now made from a nickel-copper combo, are not worth the metal on which they were originally minted. Jolly times, indeed.
Amanda Heckert is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. See her bio here.
This column originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.