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A litmus test for society

Reserve Bank decimal note designs from 1967 to 2017.

Matthew Wright

Banknotes are always designed with imagery relevant to the society in which they will be circulating, symbolising the national identity of the issuing country.

Reviewing the historical designs of New Zealand’s banknotes from this perspective reveals a more complex picture of the 1967 switch to decimalisation than the usual perception of a discontinuous change. Despite the switch from imperial to decimal currency, there were clear social continuities in the imagery used for the pre-decimal Series 2 and first decimal Series 3 notes. The real conceptual break came with the Series 5, 6 and 7 decimal notes introduced from 1992–93, which introduced new iconography and themes common to all three series.

While the Series 2 pre-decimal and Series 3 and 4 decimal series, by intent, reflected similar mid-20th century social values – underscoring the stable social character of the New Zealand society of their day, the decimal Series 5, 6 and 7 carried a different range of subjects which were selected through public consultation, formal public survey and independent expert analysis, for relevance to the society of the late 20th century and beyond.