Short snorters: Write on the money

23 August 2019

Cultural Studies | History | War and Conflict

 

This blog includes temporary free access to the short snorters pictured below. Click these to view them for free until 23rd September 2019.

 

What on earth is a 'short snorter'? Assessing material for our newly released resource America in World War Two several years ago, I found myself faced with the archival catalogue of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and this very question.

Robert Walin in a Douglas SBD Dauntless, 1945 or 1946. Image © National WWII Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

For those unaware – and allow me to massage my tender ego here by assuming that to be most of you – a short snorter is, very specifically, a banknote signed during a flight by all the people on the aircraft. According to the Short Snorter Project, an American organisation devoted to the study of these keepsakes, the holder of the note must be able to produce it at the request of any signatory; if unable, he or she must buy the signatory a drink. Aviation types being wedded to sobriety, more or less, anything alcoholic they drank – a ‘snort’ – would be on the small side, so ‘short’. ‘Short snorter’, having thus become slang for a pilot, was transferred later to the banknotes they began to sign for each other in flight.

Robert Walin's one-rupee short snorter, 1945 or 1946. Image © National WWII Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Though the phenomenon originated in the 1920s, World War II saw the snorter’s heyday. Marlene Dietrich, a seemingly unlikely collector of snorters but a participant in the Allied war effort with the USO, amassed 83 of them, with more than a thousand signatures. Flights to and from Allied conferences brought particularly rich pickings. In July 1942 Harry Hopkins, an aide to President Franklin Roosevelt, passed a snorter around a cabin in which sat, among others, his boss, Dwight Eisenhower, Louis Mountbatten, Winston Churchill and a future prime minister, Anthony Eden.

Olive Baker's 50-sen short snorter (obverse), c. 1945. Image © National WWII Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Olive Baker's 50-sen short snorter (reverse), c. 1945. Image © National WWII Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

The snorters in America in World War Two do not feature names as illustrious as these, but they still provide a snapshot of the life of US airmen and their passengers during the war against the Axis, often directly reflecting where they served. Robert Walin was a sergeant with the 988th Quartermaster Supply Detachment in the China-Burma-India theatre, serving mainly in Karachi; his snorter is on an Indian one-rupee note. Olive Baker, a WAC flight nurse, cared for invalids flown from Japan to the Philippines and Hawaii, which accounts for her possession of a Japanese 50-sen snorter signed by Robert H. Graff, a freed prisoner of war. Rivers King, who also served in the Pacific theatre, has left us six US, Japanese and Filipino notes taped together.

 

A segment of Rivers King's composite short snorter (reverse), December 1942. Image © National WWII Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Though the short snorter seems to have entered terminal decline after the war, it was later picked up by the early American astronauts. Alan Shepard and John Glenn both embarked on missions with silver certificates (alternative dollar bills redeemable for silver coins), which they signed in orbit. Presumably the first travellers to Mars will pass around their contactless cards to sign, or Instagram themselves swapping token amounts of cryptocurrency via a blockchain. In any case, I aim at reviving this niche historical practice next time I fly: I wonder how many signatures one could gather on an EasyJet flight to Marbella....


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About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.

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