Art Among the Equities

SCOTT CORBETT is a native Missourian who is now teaching English at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of many books and light articles.


Lovers of nineteenth-century public statuary and mid-Victorian etchings have missed a treat if they have never browsed through a sheaf of representative American commonstock certificates.

Centered at the top of most of them, presumably intended as decoration, is a steel engraving featuring one to three human figures in classical draperies. These are meant to symbolize the company issuing the stock, and it is seldom hard to tell what they stand for. In general they wear that blank and mindless look that goes with representing Progress and Prosperity, Industrial Might, or Natural Resources.

Of the companies that produce the certificates, the American Bank Note Company is undoubtedly the largest, and also the most faithful treader of the beaten path. Situated, inevitably, in Boston, this fine old firm continues to embellish its productions with the same straightforward symbols that so enriched the artwork of our grandfathers’ day. Public-utilities corporations have a special fondness for classical representations of their activities, and for them American Bank Note obviously keeps on hand a set of standard props which can be assembled and arranged in an endless variety of uninteresting ways. These include assorted dynamos, sledgehammers, and anvils, flywheels, gears, Victorian urns and vases, laurel wreaths, togas, and tunics, assorted wax fruits and vegetables, baskets and cornucopias, bulging bags of grain, and three or four cleaning women who double as models.

Two particularly ill-favored members of this last-mentioned group were called to the dais to flank a dynamo when a certificate was being designed for the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. One of these seated figures, wearing a leather apron, is leaning on a long-handled sledgehammer and looks as though she would have no trouble swinging it, with either hand. Half turned away, she is glancing over her shoulder at the dynamo with a dangerous expression. as though tempted to haul off and knock the whey out of it. The other creature, just as hefty but sumptuously attired, is staring straight ahead while imperiously pointing sideways at the hammer. Clearly, Capital is saying to Labor, “Don’t do it.”

Actually it is unfair to suggest that cleaning women have a monopoly on the modeling assignments, since only professional models could possibly hold some of the grotesque poses conceived by the art-class anchor men who have found a haven in the bank-note field. When the Hamilton Bank Note Company was called on to compose a certificate for Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company, a sparkling design was hit upon in which a young man and a young woman are seated on each side of a globe. (This globe is something of a curiosity in itself, since in a single hemisphere it shows us nearly the entire land mass of both hemispheres.) The young man, whose equipment includes the ubiquitous sledgehammer and anvil, is reading a scroll. The young woman, with a torch, laurel wreath, and some books near at hand, is gazing pensively into space. Her chin rests on one hand, and her elbow is apparently meant to rest on her leg. But they don’t meet. Her elbow rests on thin air.

Try holding that pose for an hour, and you will see why it takes a professional.

One might easily conclude that these designs are a heritage from earlier board chairmen whose tastes were actually formed in the Victorian era, and that time would work its changes. Well, by the fifties Allis Chalmers had a new certificate, designed this time by American Bank Note; and American, taking, if anything, a step backward, scrupulously avoided the inclusion of any object or implement or detail of style that Queen Victoria would not have recognized as an old friend.

From left to right we have these three figures: seated, his costume limited to a sheet draped across his lap, a bald, bearded old man with Chairman of the Board written all over him; standing behind him, a muscular, blond youth, the type you know will be bald at thirty; and standing beside him, a second youth, attired in the customary floating breechclout peculiar to farmers on stock certificates. Our young rube is leaning, in a most unlikely manner, on a pitchfork, its prongs upward and pointing negligently toward the first young man. Assorted fruits and vegetables at his feet and the spears of wheat in his hand further drive home his rustic status.

The old man’s knees straddle a large beaker of the kind to be found in the laboratory of any mad scientist in a standard horror movie. This beaker is half full of a brandylike liquid which is being distilled into a tumbler. The old man’s hand, resting lightly on the beaker, holds what looks like a good panatela, so that all in all he resembles nothing so much as J. P Morgan in a steam room contemplating a three-for-one split.

Under a magnifying glass, this static scene reveals itself to be full of sordid aspects and potential violence. The panatela proves to be a stylus, though what the old man intends to write on is not clear. Instead of the usual vacancy, the blond young man’s eyes hold an ambitious gleam. He is staring straight down at the old man’s head. This puts a different light on the fact that he is gripping a sledgehammer (short-handled, this time, for close work). But will our young farmer friend let him grab the chairmanship for himself? Don’t rule out our hayseed too soon, as he stands there with his arm draped around the prongs of his pitchfork, his wrist drooping in a willowy way you wouldn’t expect from a son of the soil, and his fingers trailing loosely down the shank of the fork. Any pitchfork balanced that precariously is bound to slip, and will probably catch Hammer in the forearm on his downswing. If you want to bet on who the new chairman will be, put your money on Pitchfork.

Fortunately, not much stockcertificate art holds such dreadful secrets. Much of it features young women who have consented to undrape one or more bosoms for allegorical purposes only, and who have a no-nonsense look about them which makes it clear that this sweet disorder in the dress can never lead to anything. These dedicated models can often be seen in Boston, reporting for work in their sensible walking shoes and pince-nez, with their hail pulled severely back into a bun.

Stock certificates scorn subtlety. When you come upon a Hercules Powder Company certificate, you may be comfortably sure you will receive no surprises. There he stands in his bearskin, holding a clovenheaded club of rude proportions. The bear’s head fits over his own like a skullcap, in a most unbecoming style, which one hopes will never catch on, and most of the skin hangs down his back, though, fortunately, a vagrant breeze has whipped just enough of the tail end around in front to make him decent before he has his picture taken.

On AT&T stock we get away from classical stuff for a while. Here we have Alexander Graham Bell superimposed on a bulged-out world flanked by pictures of town and country. These show the beauties of small telephone offices on city street corners and of large steel towers and telephone poles on rural hillsides. Another AT&T certificate shows four telephone receivers hooked together by wires circling the globe. Typical of the equipment pictured on stock certificates, the receivers are the kind used in country stores fifty years ago.

Sometimes the classical and industrial go hand in hand, as on Kentucky Utilities Corporation certificates. Here a lad with the usual sledgehammer is shown between two oval pastoral scenes relieved from monotony by factories, high-tension lines and towers, and other emblems of progress and production. The factories are uncompromisingly ugly but going strong, judging from the amount of black smoke spewing out of their many tall chimneys. On Wisconsin Power & Light certificates, a classical-draperies girl holds a torch that ends in an old-fashioned light bulb, while a chap in sandals and little else is shown nesting among a dynamo, anvil, and railway-car wheel. On the other hand, the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Company had the daring simply to show one of its ferryboats crossing the bay with San Francisco in the background – but, then, everybody knows what happened to that stock. Some busybody built a bridge.

From General Electric, certainly, one expects a change of pace. What kind is hard to say – maybe a picture of Betty Furness telling us, “You can be even surer if it’s General Electric” – but at least something. Not so, however. Along with

nearly every other peddler of electricity, General Electric features the first thing that would come to the mind of any artist worthy of the name of hack, a goddesslike creature holding a sparkling live wire attached to a dynamo. Potomac Electric Power uses a young man, but atones for this deviation by making him prettier than any of the girls.

Occasionally an animal is attempted, usually with lamentable results. Like the Hercules Powder people, the Greyhound Corporation gives us what we expect, but the eyesore portrayed on their certificates is a hound so scabrous, so desiccated, and so attenuated as to demand investigation by the S.P.C.A.

What about the newer corporations? Surely those space-age outfits with such terms as “dynamics” and “electronics” in their corporate names could be counted upon to break new ground! Well, not, to mention one, General Telephone and Electronics Corporation, with its Victorian engraving of Mercury and his caduceus. Not, to mention another, American Dynamics, with its McKinley period representation of what appears to be the Statehouse in Boston.

At first glance, for all its work with electronic computers, International Business Machines also appears to have allowed the same old Model 1890 human brain to choose its artwork. Seated on each side of a large IBM emblem are a young man holding dividers and a young woman holding a globe – the elements of as musty a design as any. But closer inspection is rewarding. The young woman is an arch-eyebrowed wench with a face and figure comely enough to qualify her as The Girl You Would Most Like to Test a Computer With. It takes a keen and roving eye, however, to penetrate the old-style engraving that camouflages her.

When something even less inspired than any of the foregoing designs is wanted, there is always one emblem to fall back on, the American eagle. And fall back on him they do. He has probably been fallen back on by stock-certificate artists more often than any other single symbol in their tattered catalogue.

The type of stock certificate held by small investors is generally for less than one hundred shares and is so labeled in each corner. What about the large investors’ certificates, those printed for one-hundredshare lots? Is better art provided for the real capitalists? Investigation reveals that no such undemocratic condition exists. The figures in the middle of the certificates grow larger, but the figures at the top remain the same. Investors should be happy to know that very little of their money, indeed, is being wasted on artwork. And cultural idealists with any notion of starting an avant-garde banknote company had better think twice. They’ll never make a dime.

Of course, change will come. A few leaders, such as General Motors, have definitely broken with the nineteenth century. General Motors stock certificates feature stylized cars, trucks, and buses drawn in a fashion that recalls the worst commercial art of the late 1920s. There seems little reason to doubt that within the next fifty or sixty years most major corporations will catch up with GM in this respect, and our grandchildren will witness the passing of the Victorian period in stockcertificate art and the advent of the twenties.