Who Was the First Woman Depicted on Currency and More Questions From Our Readers

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Women on coins illustration
Women have graced coinage since the third century B.C. Illustration by Victoria Maxfield

Q: Who was the first woman depicted on currency?

— Monroe Karpis | Santa Fe, New Mexico

The honor belongs to Arsinoe II, a Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, who appeared on a coin in the third century B.C., says Ellen Feingold, curator of the National Numismatic Collection. Others have included Queen Elizabeth I of England in the 16th century, Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, Maria Montessori in the 1990s and Eva Perón and Marie Curie in this decade. Women have been far less commonly depicted on U.S. currency. The full roster: Pocahontas and Martha Washington appeared on bills in the 19th century; Susan B. Anthony and Sac-agawea appeared on dollar coins beginning in 1979 and 2000, respectively, and Helen Keller appeared on a quarter issued in 2003.

What is considered the first American junk food?

— Leslie Huffek | Oak Park, Illinois

If by junk food you mean mass-produced stuff high in fat or sugar and less than ideal in nutritional value, historians generally look to a sticky mix of popcorn, molasses and peanuts that made its debut at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, says Paula Johnson, a curator at the National Museum of American History’s Division of Work and Industry. By 1896, the two street-vendor brothers who invented it, Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, had perfected their recipe and begun advertising their product around the country under the brand name Cracker Jack. The brand is now part of the Frito-Lay snack empire.

Some Native American names, such as Tohono O’odham, include a mark that looks like an apostrophe. What sound does that mark signify?

— Richard Shippee | New Castle, Indiana

In the language of the Tohono O’odham, that diacritical mark signifies what linguists call a glottal stop, similar to the hitch you hear in “uh-oh.” As Native peoples transferred their spoken languages and dialects into writing over the last 200 years, they used diacritics to indicate inflection, stress and the timing of pronunciation. In some Southwestern languages—Navajo, Apache, Hopi and Pueblo, among others—you may see such marks below letters. But their meaning varies widely, because each nation decided what the marks would signify, says Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Who brought the first panda to the United States?

— E.J. Hollister | Damascus, Maryland

That was Ruth Harkness, a New York City socialite and dress designer, says Laurie Thompson, assistant curator at the National Zoo’s giant panda exhibit. Harkness’ husband, William, was organizing an expedition to find a panda in 1936 when he died of throat cancer in Shanghai; she took over. With her guide and porters, Harkness traveled 1,500 miles, mostly by boat and foot, to the mountains separating China from Tibet. After her guide found a male cub in the hollow of a tree, she took it to Shanghai and then to San Francisco. (She listed it as a dog on travel forms.) Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo bought the panda, named Su-Lin, in 1937. Harkness returned to China the following year and brought back a female, Mei-Mei. The triumph, however, was short-lived: Su-Lin died in 1938, Mei-Mei in 1942.

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