Lesson Two: Pictures Telling Stories

In the previous lesson, students probably had questions about the meanings of the illustrations on the bills.Here, the class uses secondary sources to discover those meanings.

The lesson shows not only the importance of primary sources in the study of history, but also the limitations of relying only on primary sources of taking the money, as it were, at face value.


Copies of one bill from the Monetary Cut-Out sheets (please see Required Materials section)


Look for a bill with a particularly interesting illustration. Make copies of the bill (or enlarged copies of the picture itself) for all the students.We suggest that you choose one of the following: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, or Virginia. The New York picture survives, in slightly different form, on the official seal of New York City. Elements of the other pictures appear on the official seals of the states.

Step One

Hand out the copies of the bill you have selected. As a class, try to decipher the picture, taking it one element at a time.

Step Two

Ask students for their ideas on where to go to learn more about the picture. If you choose one of the suggested bills, tell them that the picture is still on an official seal.

Step Three

Lead the students on an Internet or library search for information on the picture. If they don't discover it themselves, guide them to the Web site of the state. The sites of five suggested states contain explanations of official state symbols:

An explanation of the New York City seal is at

Step Four

Now ask students to apply their findings to an examination of other illustrations. If you choose, say, the New York bill, they will learn that most of the elements of the picture have to do with the colony's industry. The four things that look a bit like toothbrushes turn out to be the sails of a windmill. The animals are beavers, symbols of the fur trade. The barrel-shaped objects are . . . well, barrels.  More specifically, they are barrels of flour, symbols of the important flour-exporting business in New York City.

This knowledge might cast meaning upon the ox and the sheaf of wheat on the Delaware bill, the codfish on the Massachusetts and Rhode Island bill, and that furry animal on the North Carolina bill.

If you choose the Virginia bill, students will learn that the tyrant in Sic semper tyrannus (or, more grammatically, tyrannis) is Britain and that the conqueror is Liberty. You might then show them the political messages on the bills in the Introduction section.