Did Founding Fathers on Currency Get Facelifts?

Did Founding Fathers on Currency Get Facelifts?

It was the late rapper Biggie Smalls who once said that with more money come more problems. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is hoping it's just the opposite. As the federal agency tasked with designing and printing America's money, the BEP has had its share of headaches, most caused by counterfeiters, who get more and more advanced with each new wave of digital technology. So when new bill designs are released every few decades—and it's been happening more frequently—the aim is to keep the crooks guessing.

Today caps off the latest effort in that pursuit, as the bureau releases the new $100 bill, one of the most frequently printed reserve notes over the last several years. The reason for the redesign? Security, but also to make Benjamin Franklin's monetized likeness match the other denominations, all of which have been reworked since 2006—except the $1, which doesn't attract much attention from counterfeiters. When a new bill is released, the old one is slowly removed from circulation until it becomes an antique.

There are two elements of a redesign. One is the introduction of new security features, like watermarks and hidden text (hold any new bill up to the light and you'll see them). The government lists many of the features on its Web site, but the more advanced components are never publicized, for obvious reasons. The other element of the redesign is aesthetic. "Two thirds of American money circulates outside the U.S., so it has to look uniquely American," says BEP Director Larry Felix. As for the larger and easier-to-read numbers on more current bills, you can thank "an aging population," he says.

But that's not all. NEWSWEEK has noticed something more subtle, something that would appear to be so indelible in American lore that it couldn't possibly change over time: the styling of the portraits, which appear to have been altered in a strange way. Over time, America's iconic forefathers come off looking good, even better than they used to—and it's not just some airbrushing and smoothing out. Put simply, if the Founders and their notable descendants lived in modern times, they might find themselves on magazine covers beside words like "nip and tuck."

Dr. David Hidalgo, a plastic surgeon in New York, compared the images of the presidents (and Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton) on past and current bills, pointing out just what kinds of procedures currency designers might have performed on our presidents had they been cosmetic surgeons. (View our comparison gallery with Hidalgo's markings here.) The most obvious: Alexander Hamilton, who might be surprised to hear he's undergone eyelid surgery to remove bags under his eyes and a "full-face laser peel" to smooth his complexion. Then there's Abe Lincoln, pictured several months after a nose job to heighten his masculine look, plus small cheek implants, which, Hidalgo notes, "he did not need." Civil War Gen. Ulysses Grant, keeper of the $50 note, has had an apparent Botox injection to "soften the angry look between the eyes and lower forehead." In the latest portrayal of Franklin, it appears that his neck has been visibly tightened and several wrinkles have been removed around his right eye.

It might be more humorous than offensive, but straight-faced BEP officials deny that touch-ups are part of the design process. "If there are [cosmetic changes], they were unconscious," says Felix when shown side-by-side images of the different portraits. But "if we're talking about the authority of U.S. icons conveyed in these images, I suppose it's possible," he adds, referring to slight improvements in appearance. He notes with each redesign, the iconic images are interpreted by different artists.

Still, even if the alterations are obvious, making them is not exactly a crime. In a culture that emphasizes appearance, keeping the country's top brass looking relevant and less like crotchety old men may be vital to the nation's historical identity. A reasonable effort, perhaps, although it certainly doesn't come cheap.