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October 10, 2014

Historical Echoes: “Burns Money” on What’s My Line?

Amy Farber

In a May 2014 Historical Echoes post, Marja Vitti describes what happened to money too old to be left in circulation: it was incinerated by the Federal Reserve Banks until passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, after which the money was shredded. Paper money incineration by a Federal Reserve Bank employee was the subject of a hilarious broadcast of the famous TV quiz show What’s My Line? In this broadcast, which aired on June 12,  1960, Thomas Hull, in charge of burning the money for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, steps onto the set, writes his name on the chalkboard, and when asked by John Daly, the show’s host, where he comes from, needs to repeat “Lake Ronkonkoma, New York” three times before he is understood clearly. You might think that this is why Mr. Daly answers so many of the panelists’ questions himself rather than letting Mr. Hull answer them. But you’d be wrong—he does this for pretty much every contestant to ensure that communications are clear and the game remains fair.

On this date, the four panelists (whose mission it is to guess the contestant’s job with yes/no questions) are Joey Bishop (the guest panelist), Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and Dorothy Kilgallen. Because Thomas Hull is introduced with the brief description “salaried and deals in a product,” the guessing pattern resembles a twenty-questions-like game of trying to figure out the product (money) rather than the nature of Hull’s work (burning). Since we think about money more as a means to a product than a product itself, and since money is so pervasive in daily life, the answer is quite elusive to the panelists.

     Here is a selection of questions from the panelists that elicit significant laughter from the live audience:

Cerf: Does this product perform a useful service? (subdued laughter)

Cerf: Are people better off after they’ve used the product? (raucous laughter)

Kilgallen: If I held it in my hand, would I use it on something or somebody? (titter)

Kilgallen: In order to perform its normal use, would I have to move my arm? (robust laughter)

Cerf: Would it be used more by public service corporations than the Army? (subdued laughter)

Francis: Is there anything about this product that is dangerous or could be used in a dangerous way? (raucous laughter)

Francis: Is it anything that helps to get rid of anything else? (raucous laughter)

To get the real flavor of the humor, we suggest watching the video. After an extended mother-in-law joke started by Mr. Bishop, Mr. Daly decides that the panel has to call it quits and reveals that “Mr. Hull burns money.” He ends this segment of the show by fleshing out the nature of Mr. Hull’s job:

Mr. Hull burns money. He is the supervisor for currency destruction with the New York City Federal Reserve Bank . . . and he has a tough job: every day he burns a million and a half dollars in old tired ones, fives, tens . . . But I do want to give you one solace: this money is no longer fit for circulation.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

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