Tag Archives: obsolete bank notes

Sidewheel Steamer Proof Vignette

Scattered among the American Numismatic Society’s paper money collection are vignette proofs, which are small engravings mounted on card stock by printing firms to model individual design elements for customers. The vignette pictured below is a particularly striking image of sidewheel steamer amidst river traffic from the American Bank Note Company (click to enlarge).

ANS, 1986.27.14
ANS, 1986.27.14

Although this engraving, like most nineteenth-century bank note work, was not signed, the artist was extremely skilled and created a range of tones by varying the spacing, size, and depth of the lines and dots. This detail of the sailboat in the foreground shows just how precise and delicate the line work needed to be to create a strong overall impression.

1986.27.14.detail

In industry terms, ‘bank-note engraving’ referred to two different methods of producing vignettes. Line engraving or ‘cutting’ involved using a graver to cut dots and lines directly onto a metal plate, which in practice was usually reserved for executing human figures and portraits. Etchings were made by covering the plate with a soft waxy ground and then sketching a design on to the plate using a sharp point, removing the wax where the artist wants lines to appear. The plate was then bathed in acid, which bites into the metal where it has been exposed, leaving lines and dots sunk into the plate. The scene above was created by etching, and the resulting line work for the water is particularly impressive as the reflections of the assorted boats create a very nice effect. The proof engraving would have been produced from a vignette die held by the American Bank Note Company, though it might originally have been cut earlier by  one of the antecedent firms that amalgamated into that esteemed concern in 1858 (It was, see update below). Vignettes were often used by a variety of clients, but the only bank note upon which this particular one seems to appear in the ANS collection is on an 1859 five-dollar note issued by the Morganton branch of the Bank of North Carolina (Haxby NC-55 | Pennell P-990).

ANS, 1986.27.13
ANS, 1986.27.13

While the Bank of North Carolina might have commissioned the vignette for their notes, the expense of producing an original engraving meant that it was more likely a stock image selected by the bank. Customers would simply look through specimen books or review proof vignettes like the one above and then pick and choose images and security features.  After the various design elements were decided upon, a transfer roll was used to move the design from the vignette die (a hardened steel plate with the master engraving) onto the printing plate. First, a soft steel roller was impressed over the face of the die to ‘pick up’ the image in relief. pbcylSee, for example, this transfer roll from Stack’s catalog for the J. A. Sherman Collection (2007), which holds two vignettes, one of which is of the famous polar bear scene. After the transfer rolls were tempered, they were rolled onto the face of a soft steel or copper plate, incusing the vignette onto the plate so that the notes were printed intaglio. The vignettes, counters, and lettering were added by successive applications of transfer rolls to create the overall design, after which the bank note plate was hardened and prepared for printing. The red overprinting on the Bank of North Carolina note was a security feature that would have required a second plate inked with red.

A close-up comparison between the proof engraving and the North Carolina bank note shows how some detail was lost during the transfer and printing process, and then subsequently in circulation.

ComparisonStill, the combination of artistry and technology that went into producing vignettes for nineteenth-century bank notes was impressive. For more information on this subject, see Mark Tomasko’s The Feel of Steel: The Art and History of Bank-Note Engraving in the United States (2012).

One final note: the American Numismatic Society does not presently have a vignette die or a transfer roll in its collection, though we do obviously have proof vignettes and printing plates. It would be great to get some dies in order to be able to demonstrate in full how the bank note production process worked. If a generous reader has something like this to spare, please consider donating to the ANS. Thanks!

Update: Mark Tomasko writes to let us know that this maritime vignette also appeared on a $5 note on the City Bank of New Haven. The imprint for that note is Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Co., which dates its creation to 1850-1855, prior the amalgamation of that firm into the American Bank Note Company.

Matthew Wittmann

A Rare 1866 Obsolete Bank Note

The introduction of the ‘greenback’ in 1861 marked a turning point in the history of American currency. Greenback was the colloquial term for federal paper money issued during the Civil War, which consisted of both the Demand Notes of 1861 and the Legal Tender Issues that followed. Up until the 1860s, a patchwork of state-chartered banks and other entities were emitting a vast range of paper currency, much of it of dubious worth. This panoply of paper are now known as ‘Obsolete Bank Notes’ because they were superseded by federally issued currency as the government asserted control over the money supply during the 1860s. The creation of a common currency was part and parcel of the broader war effort, and the fact that it was backed not by specie, but only by the credibility of the United States government marked a momentous change.

As part of the federal government’s move to clean up the nation’s chaotic monetary situation, the wide range of existing bank notes in circulation needed to be dealt with. Senator John Sherman of Ohio led the charge against the confusing multitude of paper money in early 1863, calling for a tax on all notes not issued by the federal government and proposing much more rigorous regulation of banks. The resulting legislation passed in the form of the National Currency Act of 1863 (now known as the National Banking Act) on February 25. The act provided a framework for a new national banking system in which state banks had to apply for a charter from the federal government. If approved, the now “national” bank deposited funds with the Treasury Department and received some percentage of those funds back in the form of  “National Bank Notes.” All of these new notes were of the same design, but entered circulation under the imprinteur of a particular bank. See, for example, this $2 note (known as a “Lazy Duece” for the horizontal 2), which was printed for the Mad River National Bank of Springfield, Ohio in 1865.

ANS, 0000.999.56396
ANS, 0000.999.56396

The new federal bank system had its advantages, and the accompanying effort to standardize American paper money proved popular with the public, but some banks were reluctant or not financially sound enough to become national banks. As a result, state bank notes continued to circulate, much to the chagrin of Senator Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase, and other advocates of federal paper currency. It was not until 1865 that the legislation that spelled the end of what we now know as the Obsolete Bank Note Era was passed. It arrived in the form of a ten percent tax on any notes issued by state banks paid out after July 1, 1866.  This particular tax is often erroneously credited to the “National Banking Act of 1865,” a piece of legislation that does not actually exist. The specific law was in fact part of the Internal Revenue Act of 1865, which you can find here. The law worked as intended as the looming penalty pushed state banks to either convert into National Banks and/or redeem their notes. Either route resulted in the withdrawal of the multitude of soon-to-be-taxed state bank notes from circulation.

ANS, 0000.999.11633
ANS, 0000.999.11633

Among the final state bank notes issued was this attractive two-dollar note by the Diamond State Bank of Seaford, Delaware. It was printed by the American Bank Note Company and features some fine vignettes, wonderfully detailed counters, and a red tint plate. With a penned-in date of February 15, 1866, it is has the latest date of any of the obsolete note in the collection of the American Numismatic Society.

0000.999.11633.detail

I suspect there’s more to the story of the Diamond State Bank than meets the eye. A report from a Pennsylvania newspaper in April 1866 shows that its notes were being rejected by banks in Philadelphia, so it does not seem to have been the most reliable institution. Whatever the case, this note seems to be one of the latest extant Obsolete Bank Notes, but perhaps our readers know of ones issued with later dates? If so, please let me know via email.

Matthew Wittmann