Homeless in Vancouver: The devilishly detailed 1954 Canadian dollar

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      Canada’s 1954 bank notes were meant to be a fresh start.

      Symbols of British dominion were deliberately traded for those representing Canada’s new spirit of nationalism while, at the same time, the new, young face of the British monarchy was displayed prominently.

      However, it wasn’t the national character of the new bills, or the striking Canadian landscapes they depicted, that caught the public eye. It was Satan hiding in the queen’s curls.

      The devil, as they say, was in the details.

      A detailed look at birth of the first really Canadian money

      The eight landscapes making up the 1954 bank note series’ so-called Great Lone Land vision of Canada.
      Bank of Canada

      The 1954 Canadian dollar bill was issued as part of the Canadian Landscape series of bank notes and replaced a series dating back to 1937, which carried the portrait of of the British monarch, King George VI.

      It’s fair to say that the impetus for the new bank note series was threefold.

      There was death of King George VI, on February 6, 1952, followed immediately by the accession of his daughter Queen Elizabeth II.

      And the year before, on November 8, 1951, there had been a speech by Canadian prime minister Louis St-Laurent to the House of Commons declaring that it was his government’s policy to replace the word “dominion” with the word “Canada".

      This was in keeping with the spirit of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, by which Canada, like Australia and New Zealand, had effectively ceased to be a dominion (or self-governing colony) of Great Britain.

      The Bank of Canada took the opportunity in 1952 to begin the process of rethinking its bank note design. For one thing, it knew that the clutter and colonial impedimenta of the 1937 series had to go. An internal Bank briefing from the early 1950s sniffed critically:

      The traditional ornamentation of bank notes reflects a ‘Victorian’ taste in design…However, elaborate ornamentation is not consistent with Canadian taste—particularly ornamentation which is derivative from times associated with an immature, colonial status.

      What was needed was a new Canadian design for the times. The respected Canadian painter and war artist Charles Comfort was contracted to create a unifying contemporary design for the series of eight denominations.

      It was decided that the reverse of each bank note would feature a different Canadian landscape—all of them suitably mythic and unspoiled by human activity. Over 3,000 images were considered and the eight which where chosen became known collectively as The Great Lone Land vision of Canada.

      This was in reference, apparently, to The Great Lone Land, a North American travel narrative written in 1872 by William Francis Butler.

      Two additional considerations constrained the design of the 1954 series of bank notes. One was the legal requirement that they be bilingual (in English and French—Canada’s two official languages). The other was the fact of bill-folding, which, according to the Bank of Canada, led to positioning the Queen’s portrait out of harm’s way on the right-hand side of the obverse.

      Only the 1954 series featured Elizabeth II’s portrait on each of the eight bank notes. This portrait was adapted from a photograph of the Queen taken by the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh—originally for a stamp. It required extensive retouching to remove a tiara.

      The modified, tiara-free version was approved by the Queen and engraved by George Gunderson, one of the best engravers with the British American Bank Note Company—a contractor closely involved in the creation of the 1954 banknote series.

      Given the special care taken every step of the way with the Queen’s portrait, the Bank of Canada could not have been expecting anything like what happened after the new banknotes were introduced into circulation.

      Worst hair day in the history of the British monarchy?

      A 1954 Canadian “devil’s head” five dollar bill with the offending area of hair enlarged.

      A Bank of Canada advertisement for the new, soon-to-begin-circulating, bank notes, published in Canadian newspapers in September of 1954, explained how big an impact little details could have on bank note quality:

      Even small variations—no one of which might be noticeable by itself—will usually combine to produce an easily distinguishable difference in general appearance. Good notes look “good” because of the skilled craftsmanship behind them.

      The ad went on to advise Canadians:

      As you come into possession of the new bank notes, study them to become familiar with their general appearance.

      One of the people who carefully studied the new bank notes as they came into his possession wasn’t even Canadian.

      According to the Bank of Canada, the Devil’s head furor was touched off by British alderman H.L. Hogg of Hartlepool, England, who wrote a letter to the High Commissioner for Canada, detailing both his discovery, he said, of a devil perched on Her Majesty’s ear and his resulting outrage:

      The Devil’s face is so perfect that for the life of me I cannot think it is there other than by the fiendish design of the artist who is responsible for the drawing or the engraver who made the plate,

      “I enclose an envelope for the return of the note but I would be better pleased if you told me you had burned it,” the hopping-mad Mr. Hogg added.

      According to a Wikipedia entry, the controversy around the new Canadian money made at least one U.S. paper—with the Toledo Blade describing the devilish apparition to its readers as having “pouchy eyes, hooked nose with flared nostrils and thick loose lips”.

      There is not otherwise a wealth of documentary evidence available online to illustrate the degree of national (if not international) controversy that you may think would be required to convince the Bank of Canada to change how it printed the entire banknote series. But that is exactly what the Bank did—and quickly.

      According to the same Wikipedia citation of the Toledo Blade, as well as the Bank of Canada, the banknote printing plates were modified beginning in late 1955, to darken the hair behind the Queen’s ear and thus eliminate any Satanic overtones.

      In 2018 the Bank of Canada revisited the 64-year-old controversy to illustrate how the devilish highlights had actually been present in the source photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, and engraver George Gunderson had simply (and perfectly) reproduced them.

      So, contrary to alderman Hogg’s assertion, the Devil’s head was not the “fiendish design of the artist”. Neither was it the result of any error on his part. Rather, explained the Bank of Canada, it was proof of Gunderson’s truly extraordinary skill as an engraver. Nice!

      The Devil made me not do it

      None of the above history, by the way, was known to me back in 2015, when I took advantage of a rare opportunity to photograph a Canadian dollar bill from 1954.

      Having already extolled the beauty of the 1974 dollar bill in 2014, it seemed only fair to write a companion post on its predecessor—for the sake of thoroughness, if nothing else, and especially since the opportunity for original photographs had fallen into my lap.

      The truth is, I wasn’t that impressed by the 1954 dollar bill. Compared to the bold redesign issued 20 years later, as part of the colourful Scenes of Canada series of banknotes, I thought that it looked dull and uninteresting. So I lost interest.

      Now I regret not immediately doing the research that would have proved me wrong while I still had all my photos of the 1954 dollar bill.

      Four years later I can only wonder what the devil I was thinking.


      Oh, in case you’re wondering, other notable deviltry of 1954 included the films Beat the DevilDevil Girl from Mars and Devil on Horseback; various Looney Tunes cartoons, including Devil May Hare and Devil’s In The Details. There were the songs Up Jumped the Devil, by Roy Brown and Old Devil Moon (recorded three times), by Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and J. J. Johnson; the Japanese manga The Devil of the Earth, by Osamu Tezuka; the play, The Devil A Saint Would Be; the books The Devil’s Hunting-Grounds, by Walter Roberts; and When the Devil Holds the Candle, by Karin Fossum, plus the science fiction short story Rastignac The Devil by Philip Jose Farmer.

      Also, the Devil delivers a plot-setting monologue at the beginning of Hugo Hass’ 1954 film opus The Bait. and on the night of December 23, 1954, it is alleged that the cloven-hooved devil himself made a live appearance at a ballroom in Tooreen, County Mayo, Ireland.