Martha Washington was first in more ways than one

News that the Obama administration will put a woman on the $10 bill has everyone from academics to late-night comics offering their opinions on the subject.

That‘€™s not to be confused with the Las Vegas strip club tradition of putting a $10 bill on a woman, but I digress.

The announcement has historians and the rest of us speculating on possible replacements for Alexander Hamilton. No matter who is selected, I recently learned, it won‘t be the first lady to grace our paper currency.

Or the First Lady, for that matter.

That honor belongs to America‘€™s first First Lady Martha Washington.

Who is my source for this fascinating slice of trivia?

None other than that veritable Google Search in blue jeans, "Pawn Stars"€ boss Rick Harrison of downtown‘s famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.

Harrison took time away from attending to that endless line of customers that stretches outside his store on Las Vegas Boulevard to explain that a woman‘€™s image has been placed on American currency a number of times — if you include Lady Liberty. The allegorical image of freedom and fairness is as American as Martha herself (even if it‘s also true the French have a similar woman playing the part of Liberty, whom they named Marianne.)

With his trademark sense of humor and unpretentious authority, Harrison explains that the crew at Gold & Silver Pawn has backup documentation that reveals the honor bestowed upon the late Mrs. Washington in the 1890s.

"€œShe was the first real female person," Harrison says. "€œWe"€™ve had plenty of other women on bills, but they‘€™re alway allegories."

America‘€™s most famous pawnbroker then expounds in detail about the, well, undeniable homeliness of much of American currency, with the exception of Lady Liberty. When it comes to starring roles on American currency, Lady Liberty plays more parts than Meryl Streep. She‘€™s depicted multiple times. (She appears to have been replaced by understudies Susan B. Anthony on the silver dollar and Sacagawea on the little golden dollar. No offense, ladies, but both are considered pretty unpopular with the public.)

Other countries long ago livened up their paper and coinage, but for the most part we‘ve stuck to the white guys in powdered wigs with other dead presidents mixed in for good measure.

It wasn‘€™t always that way, Harrison says.

In 1896, the U.S. Mint produced a series of "€œeducational notes"€ in $1, $2, and $5 bills, each depicting a scene thought to be instructional to the untutored American. There was "€œHistory instructing youth,"€ "€œScience presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture," and "Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World."€ Other notes were planned, but apparently someone wanted to depict Congress as a giant Iceberg and the program was discontinued.

Harrison has his favorites.

"We do have the ugliest money in the world,"€ he said. "Call me politically incorrect, but I would much rather see women on the front of bills than men. I just think they‘re more attractive."

Harrison says he welcomes any patron legally in possession of rare currency. As long as it‘€™s real, he‘€™s ready to make a deal.

And, who knows, maybe it helps him stay sane after being forced to converse with that Chumlee character.

John L. Smith‘€™s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. Find him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith


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