Academic journal article Folklore

Money Talks: Folklore in the Public Sphere

Academic journal article Folklore

Money Talks: Folklore in the Public Sphere

Article excerpt


This article examines "currency chains"--messages and petitions written on paper money--as folkloric expressions and rhetorical acts that critique or commend dominant American public discourse. After a general description of currency chains, it considers two categories in detail. First is the "St. Lazarus" variety that flourished in the United States in the late 1990s, having migrated from Europe. Second are political money chains that engage with a social or political order, often in protest. This article observes the condemnation of currency chains as an irrational phenomenon, and regards them as viable means for often marginalised groups to foster participation in a public sphere.


One day in November 1997, a student handed me a dollar bill and asked "Is this folklore?" He pointed to a hand-written message spanning the border, with the word "receives" misspelled:

   St. Lazarus whoever [recieves] this bill will be blessed with a lot
   of money if they write the same on ten other bills

I exchanged his dollar for another and kept watch for others. In early 2004, I acquired my one hundred and fifty-sixth example, a collection upon which this paper is based. [1]

This essay examines "currency chains," the brief, often repetitive and sometimes extremely witty statements written on paper money. [2] As a folkloric phenomenon, they offer a rich source for analysis of both the transmission of traditional beliefs and the performance of political discourse. Akin to stand-up routines (Pershing 1991), new age products (Lau 2000), broadsides (Preston and Preston 1995), or college basketball games (Carbaugh 1996), currency chains are easily-overlooked forms of public participation and function as artistic strategies for identification with a variety of causes. The messages on them represent popular and not-so-popular opinions about citizenship, faith, entertainment, and the root of all evil in a world predicated on corporate interests and mechanical reproduction. [3] They similarly raise awareness of community in a global economy. [4] As an avenue of critique, admonition, or commendation, these expressive acts negotiate relations of power--or as one rubberstamped bill asserts: "MONEY TALKS!"

I consider two kinds of currency chains in this paper. The first are "St. Lazarus chains," petitions for money that flourished in the United States in the late 1990s. The second are "political money chains," forms that are generally employed to advance or critique a particular ideological cause. I begin with a discussion of currency chains as an expression of folklore, the full appreciation of which requires attention to both the text and transmission, via the historic-geographic method, and the socio-political motives and effects via performance analysis.

General Characteristics of Currency Chains

Chain messages--and in particular their expression in chain letters--have long interested folklorists. The earliest scholarly reports of chain letters date to the first decade of the twentieth century and arise periodically. [5] The phenomenon knows no borders, and may stretch as far back as the medieval tradition of "Letters from Heaven" or perhaps even antiquity, in which letters presumably sent from the gods Hermes or Asklepios offered curative properties to their owners (Le Quellec 1995). Relatively few studies have, however, examined the specific tradition of chains written on money. Fabio Mugnaini (1994) offers the most complete analysis in his examination of more than a dozen categories of messages written on several hundred Italian bank notes. These messages range from highly idiosyncratic insults involving the St Anthony versions that raged in the early 1990s, for which latter category he examined seventy examples. Following Mauss, he postulates the importance of bank notes as a social rather than a simply physical phenomenon, one that aims "for immediate and automatic perception" (Mugnaini 1994, 64). …

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