Friday, October 16, 2015

Dr. Kane and the Bear on an American Banknote

Having enjoyed the sometimes fanciful game of imagining how Arctic explorers might look on banknotes, it occurred to me that perhaps, in the past -- especially in an era when private banks often issued their own notes -- it might have been possible that Dr. Elisha Kent Kane appeared on a banknote back in the mid-nineteenth century. I was amazed to discover that indeed this had happened, and more than once; first in 1856. with a vignette of "Dr. Kane and Party in the Arctic Regions" (of which I have not yet found an online image), and secondly in 1860, when this fanciful depiction of Kane and his men fending off an attacking bear from a boat graced a $3 note issued by the Continental Bank of Boston. The scene was engraved by DeWitt Clinton Hay after a design by Felix O.C. Darley, and is regarded even today as #24 of the top 100 nineteenth-century notes ever issued. It's a striking scene, in which Kane himself seems almost to be snarling back at the bear, hatchet in hand, while one of his comrades prepares to launch his spear.

Of course no such scene ever occurred, nor was Dr. Kane ever in the sort of small rowboat depicted in this engraving -- but nevertheless, after the fashion of previous heroes (one thinks of the dozens of engravings of of a  young Horatio Nelson's encounter with one), such an image seemed an ideal way to lionize (or perhaps one should say, bear-ize) a Polar hero.

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