Study of Costa Rican History as Told by the Images on Banknotes
By Manuel Chacón Hidalgo, Numismatics Curator, MBCCR
The study of material culture allows for the discovery of a society’s beliefs, aspirations, and values at a given time. Objects symbolize, represent and recreate the ideas of the individuals and societies that produced them.
From the time of Mesopotamian seals, image production has been linked to art and economy, as well as the desire of the ruling class to depict their world view in their documents. Coins and banknotes are an example of the link between image, economy and politics.
Coins and banknotes serve as a means of exchange to obtain goods and services, what we could call the main, or literal role. However, images on them also convey a series of messages — what we could call a secondary, or metaphorical role. Banknotes can communicate ideas; hence our certainty that there is an underlying context behind currency (coin and banknote) at any given time and place that can be studied, where currency conveys different meanings.
Banknotes with images are particularly useful to study history. The engravings on them relate to political, economic and cultural notions of the society that issued them. The images displayed on banknotes allow us to interpret the historical context of their time, as well as the aspirations and prerogatives of those who chose to display them on banknotes.
The Costa Rican liberal state of the second half of the 19th century, for example, supported the idea that an agricultural economy (coffee, and later on, banana) would bring the economic prosperity the ruling class coveted at the time. It is no coincidence that, starting in the late 19th century, and especially during the 20th century, banks began featuring images promoting commercial agriculture as the economic foundation of the Costa Rican state on banknotes. Images alluding to agriculture and trade, crop plantations, such as coffee and banana, as well as the railways and ships needed to take our products to international markets became a staple.
The visual repertoire available on paper money around the world is diverse, changing according to the period and the interests of those who issue it. Those who issue banknotes and select the images to be printed on them convey a message, either to communicate with like-minded groups or to legitimize and reinforce projects with a wider social scope. Images take on a crucial additional role as an element of social cohesion regarding specific political, economic and cultural projects.
Banknotes printed in Costa Rica in the early 20th century contained engravings that reinforced the notion of a Costa Rican nation, as well as the milestones on which it was built. Banknotes issued by the Bank of Costa Rica and and the Anglo-Costa Rican Bank featured portraits of important former heads of state, such as Juan Mora Fernández and Braulio Carrillo, as well as the National Monument and the Statue of Juan Santamaría, Costa Rican hero. The War of 1856-57against the North American Filibusters and Juan Santamaría’s self-sacrifice in Nicaragua to defend the established order in Costa Rica were part of the basis for national identity, heavily reliant on the value of patriotism. Starting in the late 19th century, these elements began to play a crucial role as symbols disseminated by the liberals as a nation was built, aiming at bringing together the population around a political and economic project.
Although knowledge of the past and the present is indirect, it is not entirely false. In this sense, the researcher’s objectivity is never absolute, since “historical facts” are created and recreated by individuals, making any attempt to interpret the past will always be biased — and entirely valid. Use of non-traditional documentary sources in historical research, such as banknotes and tools for data interpretation, such as semiotics, open new possibilities in addressing this complex period from several perspectives that complement written sources.
How to cite this article
Chacón Hidalgo Manuel. Las imágenes de los billetes como fuente para el estudio de la historia. (2001). San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos del Banco Central. Available at: link