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Beyond Face Value: The Collection

Beyond Face Value: The Collection

by Jules d’Hemecourt

“From the 1780s to the late 1860s the paper money in circulation was truly diverse. Over 1,600 different banks issued more than 30,000 varieties of notes. Thousands more were issued by states, cities, counties, companies and individual merchants.” (Professional Currency Dealers Association, 1991)

“Civil War history comes instantly alive through these notes, as they represent the struggle between states’ rights versus the supremacy of the federal government. From the first, the currency of the South could only reflect the hope and despair of a society that gave its all in the ultimate battle, and lost. The money of the epoch is truly reflective of this lost cause. To keep it going, the Confederacy resorted to every expedient known to finance: Federal money was captured, alien properties confiscated, military supplies impressed, duties placed on imports and exports, and a direct tax instituted. Bonds and loans were abundant (also) in the hope of eventual peace. Only then would all the emissions of paper money be worth their stated value.”(Shafer, 1976)

“Mrs. Jefferson Davis kept a diary of those trying times in the South. Paper money in denominations of $5 and under was useless. The Confederate money supply was so inflated it could buy little. She recalled that turkeys sold for $60 each, tea was $22 a pound and milk $4 a quart. One cake of soap could sell for as high as $50, and an ordinary suit of clothes was $2700. Still the Confederate Congress continued to issue millions of dollars worth of notes. The individual Southern states issued $65 million of their own notes in great quantities. This deluged the South with nearly $1.7 billion worth of paper money. The inevitable result was depreciation of the currency, and soaring prices characteristic of inflation. This became extreme as the war approached its close in 1865.”(Criswell, 1996)

Paper Money in America

That paper money has survived for more than a century surprises most people. Coins, minted in the millions, are far more durable. Paper can be creased, soiled, stained, and burned. But the fine engraving, aesthetic beauty, quality workmanship, and historical appeal of paper money has ensured its preservation over generations.

Notes in America were issued for some one hundred years by private and governmental entities before the first U.S. mint was created in 1792. The earliest monetary issue from the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1690 has the distinction of being the first paper money made by governmental authority anywhere in the western world. Historians generally agree the first paper money appeared in ninth–century China.

“Evidently the Chinese were quite alone in this concept; no other country joined them until hundreds of years later. Paper as a means of exchange in Europe entered through the back door, as the earliest issue (Leyden, 1574) was not intended as fiat (paper) money but only as a substitute for coinage. The first actual paper money was issued by a private bank in Sweden on July 16, 1661.”(Shafer, 1976)

Issuers of Currency

Bank notes make up most of the paper money in circulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some banks were state-chartered, some state owned, and some private, including hybrid banks that were also insurance companies. Other issuers included counties or parishes, states, and independent businesses such as the transportation sector: railroads, stage coach lines, steamboats, and packet boat companies. Private individuals with enough capital could and did issue money as well.

Illustration and Vignettes

Colonial notes were distinctively uninteresting and generally void of illustration. In the early 1800s, currency issuers employed vignettes showing American life: images depicted famous people, historical scenes, allegorical themes, nautical subjects, and rural landscapes. This multiplicity of pictures occurred in a virtually unregulated “laissez faire” economic environment.

Understandably, this profusion of currency produced confusion in the marketplace; consumers questioned the validity of notes and issuers. Within hometowns and familiar places, people knew the relative worth of notes issued by local merchants, banks, and governmental units. Notes presented to merchants from outside their realm of experience were met with suspicion. Were the notes counterfeit? Was the issuer reliable? Accepting unfamiliar currency was always a risk. Notes from well-known banks, such as Citizens and Canal Banks of New Orleans, were generally traded at face value. They maintained a solid reputation and were backed by bullion (hard money, i.e., gold) and property, including land and slaves.

Most individuals and businesses preferred hard money because of its intrinsic value, especially in times of crisis when the coin supply dwindled as a result of hoarding and sending coins out of the country for safekeeping. People frequently reverted to barter, often ignoring paper money not familiar to them.

Proof notes, samples never intended for circulation, were produced for internal examination and comment by the management and staff of banks: board of directors and major shareholders. They compared the proposed note to other notes issued by their own bank and local competitors and decided which images produced the desired effect, whatever that may be. These internal determinations were seldom publicly reported. Rationale for selection most often died with the passing of the internal staff and management.

Money in Wartime

Commerce was quite fluid between North and South before the war. Northern printers in New York and Philadelphia produced notes for Southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia and for banks and other issuers throughout the South.

“In April, 1861 President Lincoln prohibited the North from trading with the South. This action brought to a halt relations between the Confederacy and the American Bank Note Company’s New York office. It did not stop the manager of ABN’s New Orleans office from doing business. Remaining loyal to ABN, but working under the name Southern Bank Note Company, Schmidt conducted business, which even included printing some Confederate currency, for about another year. Suddenly, however, his operation came to an abrupt halt when Southern forces seized all his equipment and removed it from the city. The reasons behind this action quickly became evident when New Orleans fell to the Northern Army a short time later.”

(American Paper Money Collection)

Slavery depictions continued to be printed on financial documents into the early twentieth century. There was still substantial rural agriculture conducted in the South after the war, exercised by large numbers of African Americans in the form of sharecropping. It is unclear if such images that appeared after the war were intended to depict slaves or free men and women, considering that the same images were used before and after the war.

Notations and Cataloging of Paper Money

From 1861 through 1864, the national Confederate government issued some 70 notes; only six slave vignettes were featured:

  • T 13 1861 $100 “Slaves loading cotton, sailor left”
  • T 23 1861 $10 “Wagon load of cotton at center”
  • T 29 1861 $10 “Slave picking cotton center”
  • T 30 1861 $10 “Sweet Potato Dinner”
  • T 35 1861 $5 “Slaves loading cotton left, Indian Princess right”
  • T 41 1862 $100 & T 4 1861 $50 “Slaves weeding cotton center”

These notes have been assigned a numbering system by experts. The citations used here are by the late Colonel Grover C. Criswell from his Comprehensive Catalog of Confederate Paper Money. Individual notes are referenced by their “Type” or “T” numbers, starting with the highest value moving down to the lowest value. For example, “T 1” is the 1861 $1,000 Montgomery issue. “T 72 “is the 1864 50 cents Richmond issue. Only one type of note per denomination was printed.

The first four Confederate notes issued in Montgomery, Alabama, were printed by the American Bank Note company: T-1, T-2, T-3, and T-4. The Southern Bank Note company produced some notes for the Confederate government in 1861, including T-5, T-15, T-19, T-22, and T-31.

The following abbreviations indicate the locations of vignettes on currency:

left = lt; center = ctr; right = rt; lower = lwr; upper = upr. Other terms and abbreviations include large = lrg; small = sm; uncirculated = UNC; obverse (front of a note); and reverse (back of a note).

The Exhibit Collection

From the universe of paper money that has survived, and using my own collection as a base, I have selected notes and proofs that portray the institution of slavery. I have included notes that paint in broad brush and minute detail images of plantation life and slavery. These images are truly miniature works of art, recapitulating powerful events, personalities, and loyalties. The currency featured here captures in a unique, visual way the ethos of this historically significant time period.

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