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One coin, two coin, old coin, new coin: Searching for Dr. Seuss in the National Numismatic Collection

Beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss celebrated the importance of small things in the book Horton Hears a Who! with his famous declaration, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” In the National Numismatic Collection (NNC), we are big fans of small things. Our vault holds many of the museum’s smallest artifacts!

In gratitude for all Dr. Seuss did for the small things of the world—and in honor of his March 2 birthday, commemorated by Read Across America Day—we searched the collection to find coins and banknotes with designs that remind us of some of Dr. Seuss’s most vibrant characters and then explored the histories and meanings behind the objects.

Horton Hears a Who!

Like the Jungle of Nool, the Republic of Liberia is home to many elephants. This two cent Liberian coin from 1941 shows an elephant like the title character in Horton Hears a Who! strolling through a forest, perhaps on a mission to protect its smallest inhabitants. In Dr. Seuss’s story, Horton’s mission to protect the Whos on a speck of dust is challenged by some formidable adversaries, including a sour kangaroo (like the one depicted on a two ounce gold coin minted in Port Phillip, Australia, in 1853) and an ill-mannered bird named Vlad Vlad-i-koff. Images of powerful birds, like Vlad, are abundant on American currency. The eagle, specifically, began appearing on American money in late 18th century. But American eagles are used to represent freedom and the strength of the nation rather than mischief. They carry various items in their talons, including arrows and olive branches, symbols of strength and peace. Vlad may have dropped the Whos into a field of clovers, but the eagle on the one dollar from 1918 isn’t letting go of the American flag in his grasp anytime soon.

Brown coin with image of braying elephant
2 Cent Coin, Liberia, 1941
Gold colored coin with image of kangaroo
2 Ounce Gold Coin, Australia, 1853
Green paper note with illustration of a bald eagle
1 Dollar Federal Reserve Note, United States of America, 1918

The Cat in the Hat

There are few twins as famous and chaotic as Dr. Seuss’s imaginary Thing 1 and Thing 2. However, there is a true story of a twin brother who caused greater turbulence in the Roman Empire than the Things in Sally and her brother’s house. Born to Emperor Marcus and Aurelius Faustina the Younger, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus and Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus were the only twins among 13 children. They are featured on a Denarius coin minted in Rome between 161 and 176 C.E., which also depicts their empress mother. Sadly, the elder twin, Antoninus, died at the tender age of five. His brother, Commodus, however, became Caesar and caused more than enough mischief for the two combined! With “big bumps, jumps, and kicks, and with hops and big thumps, and all kinds of bad tricks,” Commodus asserted his authority over his people. He renamed Rome, the months of the calendar, the Roman fleet, his legions, the Senate, and even the Roman people—all after himself! Commodus was assassinated in 192 C.E., ending a rule that caused tremendous turmoil. As in the story of The Cat in the Hat, the Roman people were able to “pick up the mess” he left behind and carry on for centuries.

Denarius Coin, Rome, 161–176 C.E.
Denarius Coin, Rome, 161–176 C.E.

The Lorax

Although the NNC does not have any of the Lorax’s treasured Truffula trees, it does have another type of tree—Chinese coin trees! These objects represent the traditional process for casting coins in China. They have long metal bars (or trunks) with coins attached like flowers. Chinese coin makers produced large tree-shaped molds in order to cast a large quantity of coins at one time. Each small coin mold connected either to another coin or to the central trunk, allowing molten bronze or copper to travel from top to bottom and fill each coin impression. Once the metal cooled, the molds were opened and a coin tree remained. Coins would then be broken off of the trunk, the way Bar-ba-loots pluck Truffula fruits to eat! The NNC “cares a whole awful lot” about Chinese coins and, like the Lorax, works to ensure that they are preserved and shared for everyone to enjoy.

Long metal bar with dozens of coins attached on either side, like leaves on a tree branch
Coin Tree, China, 1862–1874

The Sneetches and Other Stories

Like the much-loved Sneetches, many American coins are emblazoned with stars “upon thars.” Among them, the silver three cent piece first minted in 1851 has a particularly prominent star. This design by James Barton Longacre featured a six-pointed star bearing a shield in the center. The United States began producing coinage in this low denomination as a reaction to the flood of gold caused by the California gold rush and the subsequent hoarding of silver it instigated. Originally intended to facilitate the purchase of postage stamps, the coin was unfortunately very small and easily misplaced among large pocket change. The coin also had a reputation for becoming very dirty due to its heavy use; it eventually earned the nickname “fish scales.” With all these mishaps, it would seem even Fix-It-Up Chappie wouldn’t have been able to keep these coins “in style,” or even circulation, for “ten dollars eaches.”

Coin with prominent image of a star with a shield in the center
Coin with prominent image of a star with a shield in the center

From ancient empires to modern nations, the NNC has coins and notes to help tell every story—real or imagined. Come and discover numismatics at the National Museum of American History and you’ll be amazed by all the places you’ll go!

This post was written by Team National Numismatic Collection (NNC): Ellen Feingold (Curator), Jennifer Gloede, (Outreach and Collections Specialist), Emily Pearce Seigerman (Museum Specialist), Kelsey Wiggins (Museum Specialist), and Hillery York (Collections Manager)