Tag Archives: counterfeit


Brasher dubloon (ANS 1969.62.1)
Brasher dubloon (ANS 1969.62.1)

When thinking about the collection of the American Numismatic Society, the mind often leaps first to the trays of gold and silver coins, to beautiful and famous rarities, and the extremely valuable pieces that only a select few could ever hope to own privately. The shiny stuff has a great allure. There is no question about that. Who doesn’t like the warm glow of the Brasher doubloon or appreciate the rarity of the Confederate States silver half-dollar? I can personally attest to the great thrill of holding one of these in each hand while we were preparing the Drachmas, Doubloons, and Dollars exhibit for the Federal Reserve back in 2000.

Lead token of Boure, A., Canada (ANS 1966.176.492)
Lead token of Boure, A., Canada (ANS 1966.176.492)

This edition of Pocket Change, however, is not about such pretty and valuable coins. Instead it is about the coins in the collection that many readers may not know about. They are the forgotten coins, the odd coins, the sometimes distrusted and maligned coins. They are those humble and unsung heroes of the ANS cabinet—the lead coins.

It may come as some surprise (perhaps even shock) to learn that the ANS collection includes some 4,448 lead pieces (including ancient scale weights, seal impressionsmedals, and modern fakes). These range in place and period from Archaic Greece and Classical India to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and the United States in the nineteenth century.

Samian lead hemistater (ANS 1979.116.1)
Samian lead hemistater (ANS 1979.116.1)

Lead coins of all periods generally fall into one of four main categories:

  • Counterfeits intended to deceive the unwary in commercial transactions. This use of lead can be traced in the Western World all the way back to the late sixth century BC, not long after coinage was invented. Herodotus reports a rumor that Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, struck lead coins and plated them with gold (probably really electrum, an alloy of gold and silver) to buy off a besieging Spartan force in 525/4 BC. Despite the doubts of the Father of History, the ANS collection includes a Samian lead hemistater that tends to support the story as well as several Milesian lead issues of even earlier vintage (c. 560-545 BC). Although plated bronze cores seem to have been far more common than plated lead in later periods, lead counterfeits were still produced by unscrupulous individuals to pass as silver coins as late as the early twentieth century AD. The Society’s collection includes a number of lead U.S. half-dollars, quarters, and dimes that were cast from authentic silver examples, apparently for circulation.
Lead half-dollar (ANS 1934. 2010.22.11)
  • Official coinages. When other forms of metal currency—especially copper/bronze—were in short supply, governments sometimes produced official fiduciary coinages in lead as a means of preventing the collapse of quotidian transactions. Thus, in southern China of the Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979) lead coins were cast both officially and in private with value ratings against copper cash coins. Lead sporadically occurs as a coinage metal in India of the Classical Period (first-third centuries AD), especially in central India, but also later under the occupation of the English East India Company in the eighteenth century. The Company’s lead pice not only filled a need for low-value coinage, but also returned a hefty profit since the face value of the coin was much greater than the cost of the lead from which it was made.
Lead pice, Mumbai, 1741 (ANS 1988.21.63)
Lead pice, Mumbai, 1741 (ANS 1988.21.63)
  • These coin-like objects are distinguished from emergency coinages in that they were produced officially or privately usually to be exchanged for goods or services rather than to circulate as money, although in times when other low value coin was scarce they were pressed into service as emergency money. In Roman times, tokens, known as tesserae, were used by emperors and lesser officials in Rome and the provinces to distribute the grain dole and other bonuses to the populace. The also seem to have been used by private businesses. The ANS collection is notable for a group of tesserae from the Roman client-kingdom of Nabataea, which may have been distributed in the context of a religious celebration or were used as tokens to purchase votive gifts in a temple. English shopkeepers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also often produced their own tokens in part because there was rarely enough copper halfpence in circulation for daily transactions. Lead tokens made business more manageable and some of the more trusted issues even gained the status of local currencies. Lead tokens were still used by small businesses in North America and elsewhere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Lead tessera (ANS 1967.160.11)
Lead tessera (ANS 1967.160.11)
  • Test strikes and patterns. As a soft metal, lead was often used for trial strikes at many mints in different periods in order to test the quality of dies and their engraving or as patterns for coins and medals not yet struck. The ANS collection includes a variety of lead trial pieces and patterns for U.S. coins that were ultimately rejected by the Mint. It also holds numerous lead trial pieces for medals struck or planned by the American Numismatic Society during its long history as a medal-producing institution. Indeed, even as late as the 1990s lead blanks were used to demonstrate hammer-striking when the Society used to have its open house at the old Audubon Terrace location. Some readers may still have one of these ANS “test strikes” carried off as a memento. As one of the demonstrators back then, I still have mine. Out of a concern for safety, all demonstration strikes made at the ANS now use plasticene rather than lead.
Lead half-dollar, Philadelphia, 1859 (ANS 1956.122.3)
Lead half-dollar, Philadelphia, 1859 (ANS 1956.122.3)

It is easy to love gold and silver, but this brief survey of the Society’s holdings of lead should shown that their humble cousin, lead, is of comparable interest from the historical and numismatic technical perspective. Just because they are often small, have less than stunning patinas, and could cause physical harm if you do not wash your hands after handling them, there is no reason why they should not sometimes share the spotlight with their shinier and more attractive relatives. After all, in some cases there might not have been the finished gold or silver coin in the trays if there had not already been a lead piece first.

Profiles in Research: Katherine Smoak

Last week Katherine Smoak, a graduate student in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University, visited the ANS to research coins and counterfeiting in the eighteenth century Atlantic world. Katherine was kind enough to sit for a short interview about her work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.


What brings to you to the ANS today?

I am a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University and I came to look at Caribbean coinage. I have been working on an article about counterfeits made in Birmingham and shipped to the Caribbean, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese coins, but also French billon coins.

And how did you get interested in numismatics?

Initially it came through an interest in crime and punishment in colonial America. I came across counterfeiters in this context and reviewing court records just made me realize how rich this sort of material about coins and paper money was.

What sort of material did you look at today?

Mostly at trays from the Caribbean cabinet. I am particularly interested in small change used mostly by enslaved peoples like black dogs and stampees.  And then I was also looking at some higher value coins like cut Spanish silver and Portuguese gold half-joes that had been variously clipped and plugged. I was really interested in the counterstamps and what that means for different islands as they tried to certify weights and keep coins in circulation amidst a flood of counterfeits.

What is a black dog?

It was a small French coin that was supposed to be a copper and silver alloy that was sent to the French colonies in the Caribbean, but ended up circulating much more widely. My understanding of them from what I have been reading is that by the 1780s and 1790s, most all of the black dogs in circulation were counterfeits and not the original imported coin. What is circulating is something like a trade token that was being produced en masse in places like Birmingham and shipped to merchants and planters to use as small change.

Part of what was so exciting for me looking at the trays today was just to see what these coins I have been reading so much about looked and felt like. Getting to feel how heavy a silver dollar was and how tiny some of the cut pieces are was really great. With the copper coins, seeing how crude and thin and easy they presumably would have been to produce and counterfeit was interesting. Seeing how much counterfeit material there was relative to genuine coin on particular trays was pretty remarkable. The wear and clipping and plugging on the gold joes was pretty amazing and thinking about the tactile interactions with money that people are having and how you can feel when a coin has been altered.

Was there a particular coin that you found illuminating?

ANS, 1927.143.1
ANS, 1927.143.1

One of the most exciting things I saw was this Portuguese half-joe that had been holed and counterstamped for Trinidad, Berbice, and Martinique. Being able to see the clipped edges and weigh it and see just how crude the holing looked was neat. All of the marks just show how widely this coin circulated in the Caribbean. This was my first time actually seeing a half-joe. It was really exciting for me to hold one after reading all these legislative minutes and Board of Trade letters about them.

And what are your future plans for the research you did here today?

Beyond this article about the production of counterfeits in Birmingham for the Caribbean that I have been working on is my dissertation, which explores the larger world of counterfeiting in the Atlantic world throughout the eighteenth century. I want reconstruct the ways that counterfeiters operated, building on the work of people like Kenneth Scott and Philip Mossman, and look at what the presence of counterfeits does to how people interact with money. The working title of the project is “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic.”

You can find out more about Katherine’s ongoing research and publications here.

Gilbert & Dean and Counterfeiting in Boston, 1806-1808

A combination of restrictive regulations and lack of available specie ensured that there was a persistent dearth of coinage in the British North American colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One result of this lack of “hard” money was that the British colonists were the first society in which paper money became the predominant form of monetary exchange.

Reverse of an 1760 five pound note printed by Franklin and Hall (0000.999.29334).

Despite the hopes of Benjamin Franklin and other promoters of the paper money experiment, the viability of the system was consistently threatened on two fronts. The first was the temptation that seemed to inevitably lead governments to print more money than could be covered by the treasury. The second was counterfeiting. The latter can be illustrated by the fact that the initial authorized issue of paper money was made by the colony of Massachusetts Bay in December 1690. The notorious counterfeiter Robert Fenton was brought up on charges for passing altered notes the following spring. The battle between authorities and counterfeiters was joined in earnest as the size and scope of paper money emissions expanded in the eighteenth century.

Colonial newspapers were replete with notices cautioning readers about circulating counterfeits and treasurers posted notices and broadsides for the public with instructions about how to identify false bills. As we have reviewed here before, the Continental Congress financed the revolution with huge emissions of paper money that the British attempted to undermine with organized counterfeiting. The excesses of the Continental Congress were such that “Continentals,” as the paper currency was known, depreciated to a point that they were practically worthless. Still, it enabled the rebellious colonists to win the war even though it poisoned much of the public on the viability of paper money as anything other than a emergency measure. Indeed, the Constitution specifically prohibited states from issuing paper money, but when the newfound US Mint was unable to meet the monetary needs of the populace in the 1790s, paper money in the form of promissory notes issued by private banks came to the fore.

By the early nineteenth century, the failures of the Continental currency had seemingly been forgotten as private banks around the country pumped a new flood of paper money into the economy. As with earlier emissions, this created opportunities for counterfeiters. Because each bank was issuing its own bills there was a certain amount of confusion among the public about what was what amidst the swirl of often crudely executed bank notes. This eventually gave rise to an entire genre of publications known as “counterfeit detectors” that we explored in part one of this series. But up until those serials were widely available in the 1820s, the public had to rely on a combination of common sense and luck to navigate the complexities of the emergent paper monetary system.

While newspapers occasionally carried warnings about counterfeiting activity, information often circulated more slowly than the fake bills. In the only significant study of the early organized effort to combat counterfeiting in print, William H. Dillistin highlights the seminal work of the Boston firm of Gilbert & Dean. Samuel Gilbert (b. 1777) and Thomas Dean (b. 1779) were trained as printers by the noted journalist and publisher Benjamin Russell. Their early partnership was centered on producing the Boston Weekly Magazine (1802-1808), which featured work from a variety of important early American writers, most notably Susanna Rowson. Seeing opportunities in the new economy, the partners gradually moved away from publishing into more speculative financial ventures as lottery, stock and exchange brokers.

The freewheeling commercial world that was budding in Boston during the early nineteenth century has been ably captured by Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist (2008). Kamensky focuses on the story of Andrew Dexter, Jr., a speculator whose rise and fall served as a cautionary tale for the newfound banking and paper money industry.

Exchange Coffee House, Boston
Exchange Coffee House, Boston

The book is well worth a read, but the short version is that Dexter financed his schemes by gaining a controlling interest in a particular bank and then issuing more bank notes than the institution could ever possibly redeem. The most infamous of these was the Farmers’ Exchange Bank of Glouscester, Rhode Island, which issued an incredible number of notes beginning in the spring of 1808. Dexter quite literally used the bank to print money in order to finance an extravagant real estate project known as the Exchange Coffee House.

ANS, 0000.999.13755
$10 bill issued by the Farmers’ Ex Bank in April 1808 (ANS, 0000.999.13755)

The scheme eventually collapsed when the public realized that the bank was unable to meet its extensive obligations, but knowledgable exchange brokers likely reaped a profit by divesting themselves of the specious notes in advance.

The public thus needed to be wary not only of counterfeiters, but of bankers as well. Uncertainty allowed exchange offices and information brokers like Gilbert & Dean a variety of ways to profit from their particular knowledge. In February 1806, the firm published a broadside (12″ x 18″) that promised “to meet the public anxiety respecting Counterfeit Bills” by listing known fakes in circulation and providing details about all of the regional banks that issued notes. The Baker Library at Harvard University has the only copy of this seminal counterfeit detector that we know of.


A typical description listed problems with the paper (too dark, too thin, etc.) or details like poorly set type and missing or altered elements for the public to ferret out fake bills. Gilbert & Dean were notably not doing this as a public service but to reap a profit, as the broadside cost 12 and a half cents (a bit or eighth of a dollar). Nearly fifty examples of counterfeit bills are noted, giving a good impression as to the scope of the problem.

Only Sure Guide (1806)
University of Chicago

The broadside was such a success that the firm published a follow up during the summer of 1806. The Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago holds a copy of this rare pamphlet entitled The Only Sure Guide to Bank Bills; Or, Banks in Now-England: With a Statement of Bills Counterfeited. Promising “utility with profit,” it also warned:

If any one should suffer for want of informationrather than buy a pamphlet, the blame must attach to himself alone; and he will not receive that commisseration which in justice he ought.

The twelve-page pamphlet provides details on forty-six banks while noting that there were seventy-four banks in operation in the whole United States, the balance of which were located in New England. The copy held at the University of Chicago includes a two-page “Postscript” dated a month after the original printing that updates some of the information therein. A typical entry read as follows:

Farmers' Exchange BankCharacteristic identifiers for the three counterfeit denominations were noted. Undoubtedly because of the extent of it, the last sentence notes that the bank was issuing new bills “from the stereotype,” which refers to a method developed by the inventor Jacob Perkins that used steel plates with intricate design features in an attempt to combat counterfeiting. The 1808 ten dollar note pictured above was one of the bank’s new bills produced using Perkins technique. Of course in the case of the Farmers’ Exchange Bank it was not counterfeiting, but the outright fraud of issuing of so many genuine notes that ended up fleecing the public in the end.

While Gilbert & Dean were providing information to the public for a seemingly modest price, behind the scenes they were also using their inside knowledge of the financial system to profit where they could. The firm’s links to the publishing industry afforded them the opportunity to paint banks in a flattering or unflattering light and as all paper money already circulated at a discount, they could to some extent manipulate the exchange value of given notes in ways that would benefit the firm. The number of court cases that Gilbert & Dean were involved in certainly suggests that they were not shy about using this leverage. An account of Gilbert and Dean v. The Nantucket Bank in July 1808 reads as an almost comical story about the lengths to which banks and brokers would go to impugn each other’s reputations. The firm brought the suit against the bank when its agent was seemingly unable to redeem a thirty dollar note for specie when he visited its office. Although the bank was undoubtedly engaging in some legal shenanigans and lost the case, its fear that Gilbert & Dean could ignite a run on the bank was certainly valid. There’s a reason that so many exchange offices and brokers were linked to publishing and the nascent counterfeit detecting industry; it gave them real power over how a bank and the paper money it issued was perceived by the public. In part three of this series, we will look at a New York City broker who played this game particularly well.

Finally, it should be noted that the counterfeiters themselves openly mocked Gilbert & Dean’s publications, which suggests that were not nearly as effective as advertised. In his wonderful memoirs, the criminal-cum-folk hero Stephen Burroughs included the text of a letter he purportedly sent to Gilbert  & Dean in 1809 when he was one of the most prolific counterfeiters in the country.

$1 note for Union Bank of Boston counterfeited by Burroughs in 1807 Smithsonian National Museum of American History
$1 note for Union Bank of Boston counterfeited by Burroughs in 1807.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The letter opened by noting that he had seen their Only Sure Guide to Bank Bills pamphlet and expressed admiration for their “kind labors for the public weal.” Burroughs sarcastically mocked the recent and spectacular failure of the Farmers’ Exchange Bank by suggesting only “Officers of the Pancake Exchange” could tell real pancakes from counterfeit ones. Gilbert & Dean probably did not care a whit about this as the firm ended up in control of the Exchange Coffee House that resulted from that epic swindle!

Matthew Wittmann

Mahlon Day's Originary Counterfeit Detecter, 1828

One of the most overlooked aspects of both numismatic and printing history in the United States is the ephemeral genre of serials known as “counterfeit detectors.” These publications flourished in the antebellum era, when a chronic lack of coinage led individual banks and businesses to issue diverse forms of paper money. A trickle of notes issued by private banks in the late eighteenth century turned into a veritable flood by the 1820s as an ever-greater number of banks issued increasingly large amounts to satisfy the needs of the growing populace and economy. These privately issued bank notes were a kind of representative money that promised the holder that the paper could be redeemed at the bank for specie, i.e. gold and silver, on demand. In practice this was not always the case as a given bank’s ability to ‘make good’ its circulating notes was often questionable.

While this newfound capital helped to fuel the United States’ runaway growth, the sheer number of different designs and varying quality of the notes created a chaotic currency situation that was ripe for abuse. Perhaps the biggest problem was the integrity of the note-issuing banks themselves, which ranged from prudent and well-capitalized institutions to unsafe and even outrightly fraudulent ones that printed notes with no intention of ever redeeming them. Rampant counterfeiting only further confounded matters, and the public was put in the essentially impossible position of attempting to assess whether or not a given note was genuine, and even if so, what it exactly it was worth for an incredible range of currencies.

The American, August 14, 1819
The American, July 14, 1819

In an attempt to bring some clarity to this confusing situation, publishers printed broadsides and circulars that listed commonly counterfeited notes. Newspapers, most notably the Baltimore-based Niles Register (1811-1836), also featured financial columns that advised readers about the soundness of various banks, reported exchange rates, and took note of counterfeiting activities around the country. Yet it was not until 1819 that The American, a New York City newspaper, began to regularly publish a table entitled “Bank Note Exchange,” which gave the going rates for assorted notes and listed known counterfeits. The table at left is reproduced from the July 14 edition and indicates that it was updated every Tuesday and Friday by Martin Lee, a broker with offices at 44 Wall Street. A rating of “par” indicated that the note was equal to its printed value, while a number followed by “do” indicated the rate at which the note was discounted, which typically was related to either the perceived soundness of the issuing bank or its distance from the city. The column shows that notes issued by banks in Baltimore, for example, were discounted 3 percent, making a ten-dollar Baltimore bank note worth $9.70 in New York. Banks further afield suffered from even steeper discounts, and the geographic disparities created opportunities for “bill brokers” and “note shavers” to acquire and transfer the notes around the country at a profit. By the early 1820s, bank note tables became increasingly common in American newspapers, and often included notices about known counterfeit and so-called “spurious” notes that were issued by fraudulent banks. These bank note tables and columns were the precursor to a genre of newspapers that emerged in the late 1820s that focused almost entirely on the legitimacy and value of paper money in circulation.

William H. Dillistin’s Bank Note Reporters and Counterfeit Detectors, 1826-1866 (1949) represents the only serious study of these popular publications to date. As delineated by Dillistin, these serials had two essential purposes: (1) “to show the rate of discount at which uncurrent notes would be purchased or exchanged for specie in the more important business centers,” and (2) “to furnish a brief description of counterfeit, spurious, altered, and raised notes.” The noted New York printer and Quaker Mahlon Day (1790-1854) was the first to publish a bank note list and record of counterfeits at regular intervals, beginning a biweekly broadsheet in 1826 called the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter. Because each new issue superseded prior editions with updated information, they were typically discarded and few examples have survived relative to the numbers in which they were printed. A survey of major libraries for Day’s New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter, which was published continuously from 1826 to 1851, turns up only a few dozen extant issues. When Dillistin produced his 1949 study, the earliest that he discovered was an August 1830 edition at the Huntington Library. Looking through a sheaf of counterfeit detectors donated to the ANS the other day, I discovered an even earlier date.

The April 14, 1828 edition of the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter is a four-page folio approximately 20 by 13 inches in size. Underneath the title, an inscription reads: “Published by Mahlon Day, at the New Juvenile Bookstore, No. 376, Pearl Street.” Indeed, Day is perhaps better known today for his pioneering role in publishing children’s books, but combating counterfeiting also proved to be a profitable business. A notice lists the price of a subscription to the paper as two dollars per annum, and indicates that the serial was “entered according to an Act of Congress the 30th day of October, 1826,” which raises the possibility that there might be even earlier extant issues that could come to light.

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

The first page lists the value of notes for over one hundred banks around the country in the city of New York at that time, indicating whether particular notes were circulating on par with their nominal value or at a discount. Bankrupt banks were straightforwardly labeled as “broke,” while in many cases the value of given bank’s notes were listed as “uncer,” i.e. uncertain.

The remaining three pages of the paper were taken up with what purports to be “A Complete List of Counterfeit Bills, of Altered Notes, and those with Spurious Signers, throughout the United States,” organized by geography and denomination. The list offers a window into the principal means by which counterfeiters operated. The most straightforward method was to simply reproduce a genuine note as best as possible. ANS-1828-2The Counterfeit Detecter sometimes described a bogus bill in detail, explaining for example that a twenty-dollar note attributed to the Charleston Branch of the Bank of the United States was “fainter than the genuine, particularly the eagle and work around it,” and that it was “shorter than the genuine note.” Other known counterfeits were simply listed, as in this excerpt from the section on New York City banks. Here one sees a listing for a counterfeit $2 note from the Merchant’s Bank dated March 1, 1826, The ANS actually holds an example of this particular note, which although crudely made, we did not regard as a counterfeit until reading this counterfeit detecter.

ANS, 1984.111.1
ANS, 1984.111.1

Day’s Detecter also shows that wholesale counterfeits were less common than the practice of “raising” bank notes, which involved changing the denomination of a genuine bill. The New York City excerpt above indicated $1 notes of the Manhattan Bank were being altered into $2 notes and that $1 notes of the Merchant’s Bank were being changed into $3 notes. In the specimen below, a genuine one-dollar note issued by the Northern Bank of New York has been raised to a value of ten dollars, the telltale signs being the discoloration around the engraved numbers, which were rubbed or cut out and then replaced with the higher value.

ANS, 0000.999.10146
ANS, 0000.999.10146

Note the dark spots around where the numbers have been altered. While this counterfeit was not particularly well crafted, I chose it as an example because the tampering was so easy to see. Better executed raised notes were very difficult to detect without the kind of specialized information that counterfeit detectors provided. Another technique for altering notes was to change the name on worthless paper issued by a broken bank to that of a sound institution. Day’s Counterfeit Detecter thus also lists “spurious” notes, which refers to either currency issued by plausibly-named but non-existent banks or those notes that were purely fraudulent, bearing no resemblance to any genuine notes. That notes for a completely fictional bank could and indeed did circulate suggests something of the confusion that reigned in the monetary system and the appeal of something like this serial that helped individuals and businesses navigate the bewildering mix of paper money in circulation.

The two-and-a-half pages devoted to counterfeits list over eight hundred fraudulent notes, which casts some light on the scope of the problem; and it was one that was only getting worse as banks and bank notes proliferated amidst the Market Revolution. A short notice “To our Patrons and Friends” on the back page of Day’s paper informed readers that the publication would soon be increasing in size and promised “an improved general appearance,” and asked “the community for a continuance of their favors.” By 1830, it was an eight-page publication and in 1837 Day’s Counterfeit Detecter expanded to sixteen pages. Clearly Mahlon Day had struck upon a popular and profitable idea, and it would not be long before competition in counterfeit detection began to heat up. Interestingly enough, the back page of the paper contains and advertisement for Sylvester J. Sylvester, a broker who would shortly become Day’s biggest rival and whose endeavors we will cover in part II of this series.

Matthew Wittmann

Counterfeiting Continental Currency

The Irish-American printer John Dunlap of Philadelphia produced this broadside in 1778/1779 at the direction of John Gibson, the auditor general for the Continental Congress. Dunlap’s most famous printing job was undoubtedly the Declaration of Independence, the first copies of which are colloquially known today as ‘Dunlap broadsides,’ but he was also the general printing contractor for the Continental Congress. This broadside is a single sheet measuring 8″ x 16″ and its heading gives a fairly precise indication of its purpose:


Which were done in Imitation of the True Ones ordered by the Honorable


Bearing Date 20th May, 1777, and 11th April, 1778. 

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Financing the war against the British was a tricky proposition for the cash-strapped colonists, who ultimately simply printed their own paper money and embraced the convenient fiction that all of it was backed by specie. The market of course knew better, and the value of notes issued by the Continental Congress depreciated rapidly as more and more currency entered circulation. The relatively modest initial printing in May 1775 of $3,000,000 in Continental Currency was dwarfed by later emissions, like the $25,000,000 authorized by the Resolution of April 11, 1778. Continental Currency was also being devalued through the work of counterfeiters, who saw an opportunity to take advantage of the unprecedented volume of paper money circulating. For British forces and their Loyalist allies, counterfeiting was also seen as a weapon of war, as this infamous advertisement published in a newspaper from British-occupied New York City makes clear.

New York Gazette, April 14, 18777
New York Gazette, April 14, 1777

The advertisement promised “exactly executed” counterfeit “Congress notes” to any person traveling into the colonies, observing that a large amount had already been circulated and that there was “no Risque in getting them off.” To be fair, there were a variety of opportunists on both sides who were successfully counterfeiting Continental Currency, but British efforts were certainly more organized and systemic. How effective this was at undermining the currency and the larger American war effort remains an open question.

Part of the problem was not just how much paper money was being produced, but that it was so often poorly printed. The broadside mentions circulating counterfeits of a $6 bill dated May 20, 1777, and as you can see in the two specimens below, the genuine versions of this note were not exactly masterpieces in either design or execution. This was, notably, the first emission on which the appellation “UNITED STATES” appeared.

The so-called “nature printing” on these notes was a security feature based on the idea that the delicate lines of an impressed leaf were difficult to replicate, but here the effect is almost undetectable in the square block of ink on the reverses. The overall inconsistency of the print runs necessarily made counterfeits that much harder to detect. As the final paragraph of the broadside alludes to, letterforms were broken during the printing process, which raised alarms when comparing even genuine notes with one another. Adding quality counterfeits to the mix only sowed more confusion. Below is an animation of a transition between a genuine and counterfeit $8 note of May 20, 1777 mentioned in the broadside:


The broadside details how this counterfeit, which was engraved on a copper plate, was not quite able to replicate the quality and regularity of the letterforms in the genuine note, which was set by a printer using type. Still, as you can see, the counterfeit was certainly a reasonable facsimile of the original. While faking an eight dollar note was all well and good, a more attractive target were the higher denominations.

The $40 bill was the largest denomination of what are known as the Yorktown notes, since they were authorized by an April 11, 1778 resolution and printed in York, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress was temporarily residing. The broadside enumerates three separate fraudulent versions of the $40 note, which might have been the most counterfeited of the Revolutionary era. The problem was so serious that large numbers of these Yorktown notes were simply destroyed, and this is what makes them the rarest and most expensive notes for collectors today. The fiasco only further depreciated the already shaky Continental Currency, which at this point was worth only between a quarter to a third of its nominal value, i.e. one dollar of silver was worth three or four dollars of paper money. It only went downhill from there, and by the end of the war, “not worth a continental” had entered the lexicon for something regarded as worthless.

The handwritten annotation at the bottom of the broadside reads: “Permit no copy of these descriptions to be taken unless at the request of the Executive Authority of the State to be placed in confidential hands.” It was also singed by the auditor general of the Continental Congress, John Gibson, for whom counterfeit bills were clearly a pressing issue, but it’s unclear how great of an aid this rather simple but detailed descriptive list was in combating the problem. Still it does offer a fascinating window into the financial schemes that the American colonists relied on to fund the war and the machinations with which the British tried to thwart them.

For more on the paper money of the revolutionary period, see Eric P. Newman, The Early Paper Money of America (5th ed., 2008); Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in Colonial America (1957, reprint 2000); Philip L. Mossman, From Crime to Punishment: Counterfeit and Debased Currencies in Colonial and Pre-Federal America (2013).

Matthew Wittmann

Freedom's First Con

Historians of the United States have traditionally shown little curiosity about American money in anything more than an abstract sense. In a salutary exception, Shane White,  the author of several noted books on African-American history, published an article in last fall’s Journal of the Early Republic that looked at the intersection of race and money in nineteenth-century New York City. The chaotic monetary system of the antebellum United States and the panoply of paper money in circulation, no small part of which was counterfeit, created a variety of problems for ordinary people engaged in commerce. Everyday transactions could turn into fraught affairs as the parties negotiated over the value and validity of the money being proffered. Matters only became more charged when race was added to the mix.

As detailed in the landmark exhibition at the New-York Historical Society a few years back, New York City has a long, and generally overlooked, history as a capital of slavery. In 1790, one in five white households in the city owned a slave, and although there was a growing free black community, it was not until over a half-century after the American Revolution that the state of New York formally abolished slavery on July 4, 1827.

ANS, 0000.999.39313
ANS, 0000.999.39313

The city was home to the American Anti-Slavery Society, which distributed the copper token above, and abolitionist sentiment was certainly on the rise in the 1830s and 1840s. And yet racism was hardly in abeyance, and the asymmetrical power relationship between white and black was something that African-Americans had to confront and deal with on a daily basis.

New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society

Shane White focuses on how this power dynamic played out in the course everyday monetary transactions, making use of a wealth of material drawn from legal records in the Municipal Archives. One commonality that emerges is of the problems that black businesses had dealing with white customers, who variously ran up and out on charges, tried to pay with counterfeit money, or otherwise abused black owners. The resulting conflict all too often resulted in violence, as with the following episode detailed in the article:

One evening in February 1835, William Dunbar tried to pay his bill of one shilling in a cook cellar in Cherry Street with a three-dollar note. Aaron Jacobs, the black proprietor of the establishment not only refused to accept it, claiming it was from a ‘‘broken bank,’’ but also would not return the note to his customer, making it clear that he intended to hand it over to the police the next day. Furious, Dunbar pulled out a loaded pistol, pointed the weapon at Jacobs, and squeezed the trigger. Although the cap exploded, fortunately for the black man, the pistol did not fire. Dunbar told the authorities that he had ‘‘no explanation to give that he was drunk & don’t know what he had done.’’

But African-Americans were not always on the losing side in these conflicts, and the article documents the way that the resolute black restaurateur Thomas Downing ably dealt with patrons attempting to pass counterfeit notes like the one below.

ANS, 1945.42.37
A well-circulated counterfeit five-dollar note from Tradesmen’s Bank of the City of New York. ANS, 1945.42.37

White also shows how some African Americans turned the complicated monetary system to their advantage. The titular “first con” refers to the the practice of “burning,” a scam wherein black men took money off white “marks” by offering to change their bank notes for silver and gold coins at friendly rates. Gangs of black “burners” often employed white confederates, and lurked around the city’s docks and exchange offices, looking for new arrivals with fat pocketbooks. A variety of tricks were used to induce the mark to take out their money, but once they did the burners simply grabbed the cash and ran. This rather crude con first emerged in the 1830s, but the article traces how the scam was refined over the years. For the full and fascinating story, click on the link below.

Shane White, Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in Antebellum New York CityJournal of the Early Republic 43:3 (Fall 2014): 385-409.

Matthew Wittmann

Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale

This is the first in a new monthly series of short films that will explore some of the more intriguing objects in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. First up is a short history of the Fairbanks’ Infallible Coin Scale and a look at how well it works in practice.

The Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale shown in the the video is the descendent of a coin scale introduced by J. T. McNally in the late 1870s. It is a variation of a rocker device invented by John Allender in the 1850s, which had a fixed fulcrum with a counterweight and a gage or hole for different types of gold coins.

ANS, 2010.4.7
ANS, 2010.4.7

The Fairbanks-McNally scale replaced the gages with appropriately sized slots for each coin. The earliest versions had a walnut base and advertisements for them at a cost $2.50 each appear in newspapers and periodicals from 1879 forward. The relationship between McNally and the Fairbanks Company is not precisely clear but the models with wooden bases have either J. T. MCNALLY, INVENTOR. or FAIRBANKS & CO. stamped on what’s called the tang or metal beam.

On February 28, 1882, John T. McNally and Walter H. Harrison filed a patent for the design. Subsequently several versions of the scale with cast iron bases appeared. One model has the lettering FAIRBANKS CO. cast onto the base and imprinted on the counterweight end of the metal beam.


The more elaborate and seemingly most common model, advertised above, has a cast iron base with decorative golden stripes and flowers and the words FAIRBANK’S INFALLIBLE impressed into it. Imprinted on the metal beam is FAIRBANKS INFALLIBLE SCALE CO., BALTIMORE, MD., USA. The American Numismatic Society also has the presentation version of this same model, which came in a wooden box and is featured in the video.

For more on the history of counterfeit detectors and related devices, the best source is: Eric P. Newman and A. George Mallis, U.S. Coin Scales and Mechanical Counterfeit Coin Detectors (1999).