Tag Archives: paper money

Lottery Mania in Colonial America

ANS, 0000.999.16549
ANS, 0000.999.16549

As Powerball mania sweeps the nation, I thought it would be interesting to explore the longer history of lotteries in America with a look back to the eighteenth century. For a run-down of the particulars about how they operated, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who served as the official Librarian of the United States, wrote a useful introduction to the subject you can read here. By way of a short summary, the practice of holding lotteries to raise money for local governments and private entities was brought by English colonists to North America in the seventeenth century. The Third Virginia Charter of 1612 granted the Virginia Company of London a license to conduct yearly lotteries to raise funds for supplies for early colonists. Spofford goes on to note that the award for what seems to have been the first proper lottery to take place in colonial America in 1720 was rather unusually for a brick house in Philadelphia rather than a cash prize.

As an essentially speculative venture, lotteries bred a certain amount of attendant trouble as they were easy to manipulate and in some cases the holders simply neglected to have a drawing and made off with the money altogether. Abuses such as this led to a swath of legislation, but both private and public lotteries proliferated. The more reputable ventures were authorized by local governments and fronted by prominent citizens, frequently with the aim of funding some worthwhile public project. As Spofford notes, it was looked upon as a kind of “voluntary tax” for public works, with the added benefit for subscribers of potentially getting a windfall.

Spanish "piece of eight," 1746. ANS, 1955.130.3
Spanish “piece of eight,” 1746.
ANS, 1955.130.3

The Scheme of the Second Philadelphia Lottery (1748) published by Benjamin Franklin gives a good overview of how a contemporary public lottery operated. Numismatists will be interested to note that all of the values were enumerated in terms of “pieces of eight” as Spanish dollars were the dominant form of coin in circulation. The drawing was done by putting all of the numbers in a wheeled bin that could be spun during the drawing. The plan was to sell seventy-five thousand dollars worth of tickets while ultimately reserving twelve-and-a-half percent or $9,375 dollars for public use with the balance being awarded as prizes. Schemes such as these were so popular and innocuous that even churches held lotteries to raise funds for their endeavors.

The American Numismatic Society holds about a dozen eighteenth-century lottery tickets. They are interesting in part for the numismatic and economic information they reveal, but also in terms of their design. Counterfeiters could easily manufacture a ‘winning’ lottery ticket because they were pen-numbered (and thus easily altered) and it took time for reports of the numbers to circulate and for winning tickets to be redeemed. Precautions needed be taken to prevent chicanery, which led to some innovative features.

ANS, 1945.42.818
ANS, 1945.42.818

The 1753 Connecticut lottery ticket above has a seemingly haphazard left edge because it was cut from a larger sheet. Anyone redeeming a winning ticket thus needed to have both the correct number and an edge matching the original sheet to validate its authenticity. Because the lottery was so much smaller, tickets were simply issued with consecutive numbers over the much more complex systems of today. Incidentally, this 1753 lottery was one of several held for the benefit of the “College of New Jersey,” i.e. Princeton University, and this particular one seems to have funded the construction of Nassau Hall.

Connecticut was a very active place for lotteries. In 1754 one was held to construct a wharf in New Haven. The ticket for that lottery at the ANS is particularly noteworthy because it seems to have been a winning ticket for the sum of £25. All in all, eighteenth-century lotteries were much more even in terms of dispersing winnings, with larger tiers of moderate payouts over what is more or less the winner-take-all format of today.


Arguably the most important lottery in American history was created by the Continental Congress in 1776 for “carrying on the present and most just and necessary war.” The “scheme” of the inaugural United States Lottery rather entertainingly refers to ticket holders as “adventurers.” Tickets were issued in different classes as the amount of awards and the cost of tickets escalated. This “Class the Third” ticket in the ANS collection was rather curiously signed but not seemingly issued as it lacks a number. Note the lines in the ‘No.’ field, which was meant to prevent alteration after a given ticket had a number written on it.

ANS, 0000.999.57379
ANS, 0000.999.57379

Just as the issuing and counterfeiting of Continental currency was part and parcel of the larger conflict, financing via lottery was another arena of contention. The ticket below was used as part of a Loyalist lottery held in British-occupied New York City in 1777 to raise money for the provisioning of British troops.

ANS, 0000.999.57381
ANS, 0000.999.57381

Although the rebellious colonists prevailed, the victory seemed to have done little to whet the public’s appetite for the lottery, and they proliferated in the United States during the late eighteenth century. A series of scandals in the nineteenth century, and the burgeoning of more or less fraudulent commercial lotteries hurt their reputation, but as today’s Powerball drawing suggests, the lottery still occupies a prominent place in American life and continues to play a significant role in funding public projects.

Matthew Wittmann

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

Chinese Notes Update: Beware of Works Based on a Fraud

Recently on Pocket Change I wrote about Chinese Ming paper notes. Afterward, I was pleased to hear from an expert on the subject, Bruce Smith, who has been studying Chinese coins and paper money for forty years. Most of the information he conveyed comes from a talk he gave at the Chicago International Coin Festival in April 2013.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The earliest western description of the Ming notes that Bruce could find comes from The General History of China, a translation of a 1736 French work by Jean Baptiste DuHalde that was a compilation of reports by Jesuit missionaries. Early descriptions can also be found in articles by John Williams for the Numismatic Chronicle (1863 and 1864) and in two Journal Asiatique articles, “Sur l’Origine du Papier Monnaie” by Jules Henri Klaproth (1822) and “Memoire sur le Systeme Monetaire des Chinoises” by Edouard C. Biot (1837).

Chinese book 0535_001In the twentieth century, much of the writing on early Chinese notes, including the article by John Sandrock (parts 1&2) cited in my original post, was based on the research of Andrew McFarland Davis in the 1910s. Davis, an authority on U.S. Colonial notes, stepped outside of his area of expertise when he published descriptions and illustrations of early Chinese notes taken directly from Ch’uan Pu T’ung Chih, a work supposedly compiled in the early nineteenth century. The resulting study by Davis and translator Kojiro Tomito, Ancient Chinese Paper Money as Described in a Chinese Work on Numismatics (1918), was used by subsequent writers such as Henry Ramsden and Howard Bowker. Unfortunately, according to Bruce, the Chinese book on which it is based is a fraud. “All of the notes listed and illustrated in the work are bogus fantasies—they never existed,” he says, so any work based on Davis’s writings are suspect, including the Sandrock article.

Incidentally, one of the frustrating things about the online version of the Sandrock article is the absence of a date or the name of the journal where it was originally published. Bruce cleared that up too. A brief article by Sandrock on topic appeared in the Currency Collector (v.4 n.1, Spring 1963). The source of the online version appears to be Numismatics International’s NI Bulletin (part 1, Nov. 2003; part 2, Dec. 2003).

ANS 0000.999.34324
ANS 0000.999.34324

Finally, Bruce also points out that, while the Ming one kwan (or guan) notes were indeed first made in the late fourteenth century, they continued to be printed and circulated into the sixteenth, so surviving examples, including those in the ANS collection, could come from the later period.

I would like to thank Bruce for contributing so much on this fascinating topic.

David Hill

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

GOP Debates the New $10

The ongoing discussion about changing the personages who grace US currency is one that we have covered before (here,  here, and here). This spring, the Women on 20s movement effectively sparked a renewed national discussion about the lack of women on US currency (beyond of course the lightly-circulated Sacagewa dollar coin). Although the goal of that campaign was to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill, in June Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew made a surprise announcement that the ten-dollar bill, which was already in the process of being redesigned, would feature a woman. The rather general message was simply that a “notable woman” would feature on the bill and the American public was asked to share its ideas about who it might be here. Despite this solicitation for public feedback, the decision will ultimately be made by Jack Lew and opposition to removing Alexander Hamilton at this point seems moot.


The tremendous response to the announcement and discussions about the varied possibilities have been ongoing. The winner of the popular Women on 20’s poll was Harriet Tubman, with Eleanor Roosevelt coming in a close second. The poll we ran here on Pocket Change was won by Amelia Earhart, with Helen Keller just behind. Anecdotally, the name I have most often heard is Rosa Parks. In short, it seems like there are a number of different possibilities and it has been heartening to see this numismatic issue enliven the public interest. It was also fascinating to see it addressed at last night’s GOP debate on CNN. Although moderator Jake Tapper condescendingly introduced it is a “lighthearted” topic, he asked the Republican candidates directly: “What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill?”

Their responses were interesting and the video below is cued to the segment if you would like to watch:


Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump rather lamely suggest their wife, mother, and daughter respectively. Jeb Bush looks to conservative icon Margaret Thatcher while John Kasich sees Mother Theresa as an inspiration, though neither would seem to be appropriate for US currency. Of the more considered responses, Mario Rubio advocates for Rosa Parks as “an everyday American that changed the course of history.” Citing his own work with the Red Cross, which she of course helped found, Scott Walker puts forward Clara Barton. Chris Christie observes that “our country wouldn’t be here without John Adams, and he would not have been able to do it without Abigail Adams.” It was somewhat surprising to me that the only candidate who did not accept a change as a fait accompli (perhaps because of the way the question was framed) was Carly Fiorina. Fiorina seems to think the proposed change is a meaningless “gesture” and does not “think it helps to change our history,” linking her opposition to her feeling that “women are not a special interest group.” 

The range of responses show just how compelling and open the question of whose portrait will feature on the new ten-dollar bill is at present. And it is a discussion that we will continue to follow with interest here on Pocket Change.

Matthew Wittmann

Excerpt from the full transcript (via Time) is below the fold:

Continue reading GOP Debates the New $10

The World’s Oldest Surviving Paper Money

In 1923, Dr. Richard Ehrenfeld of Vienna wrote to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to announce that he had in his possession the oldest bank note in existence, a one kwan (or guan) issue of the Ming dynasty from about the year 1375, discovered in 1888 during the demolition of an old house in Beijing and acquired by his father, paper money collector Adolf Ehrenfeld. Richard had inherited the note and, suspecting that “European collectors or Museums nowadays have not the money to acquire so valuable an object,” he turned to America instead, looking to part with it “should a price approximate to the value of the note be offered me,” a figure he put at about fifty thousand dollars (roughly one million dollars today).

Howland Wood
Howland Wood

The Met passed Ehrenfeld’s letter on to the ANS, which left curator Howland Wood to deliver the bad news. His father’s note was not worth fifty thousand dollars. It was worth five dollars. Wood knew this because he had sold fourteen of them himself for that price. There were many others in New York alone, Wood told him, including several in the collections of the ANS.

The problem for Mr. Ehrenfeld, as Wood explained, was that his treasured item was not as rare as it once had been. In 1900, some European soldiers, who had been sent to China to restore peace during the Boxer Rebellion but who were instead ransacking the imperial Summer Palace, discovered a large quantity of these notes under an overturned statue of Buddha. (An entire bale of one kwan Ming dynasty notes would be discovered in 1936, hidden in an old wall outside of Beijing.) Ehrenfeld was right about one thing. Well, almost: with very few exceptions, these are the oldest examples of paper money known to have survived.

Marco Polo, Wikipedia
Marco Polo, Wikipedia

The Chinese not only invented paper, they invented paper money during the reign of emperor Chen Tsung (998-1022 AD). Examples predating the Ming notes are rarely encountered and are limited to fragments, modern facsimiles made from brass plates recovered in excavations, and a few notes reportedly held in museums. In 1988, Bank Note Reporter announced the discovery of two notes dating from 1265, one at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the other illustrated in a book published by the Inner Mongolia Numismatic Research Institute. These notes date from the period just before the arrival of Marco Polo at the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Polo was fascinated by the “coinage of this paper-money,” describing it as a kind of alchemy, mulberry bark transformed into paper having the same value as gold and silver.

Of course it doesn’t matter that no one then or now would pay fifty thousand dollars for Ehrenfeld’s note. It is a great thrill just to be able to hold one of these historical artifacts.

Chinese bank note
ANS, 0000.999.52979

The first thing you notice is the size (22.5 cm x 33.5 cm), which is close to a standard sheet of U.S. office paper. The mulberry paper is thick and textured with the characters and symbols printed in black and then overprinted with vermilion seals, which are only faintly visible in the photo above. At the center of this “Great Ming General Circulation Treasure Note” is a pictorial presentation of the denomination in the form of ten strings of 100 cash (= 1000 cash = 1 kwan). Those able to read the inscriptions can tell you that the issuers were not content with a simple “In God We Trust.” Instead they made sure to include a warning to those thinking about making unauthorized copies. It reads, in part, “the counterfeiter shall summarily be decapitated.” Although Howland Wood did not purchase Ehrenfeld’s note, the ANS at present has five examples of this historical Chinese paper money.

For more, see the highly informative “Ancient Chinese Cash Notes – The World’s First Paper Money,” part 1 and part 2, by John Sandrock at the Currency Collector website.

Update: For more on ancient Chinese notes, see this follow-up post.

David Hill

Joe Cowell's Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821

Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players (1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.


ANS, 1887.24.1
ANS, 1887.24.1

In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.

1817 admission check for Park Theatre ANS, 1898.4.51

The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.

Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831 New York Public Library
Park Row and the Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831
New York Public Library
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.

ANS, 1896.4.1
1816 silver shilling, ANS, 1896.4.1

Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:

After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.

“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.

“English shillings,” I replied.

“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”

I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.

Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:

I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.

There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:

ANS, 0000.999.10106
ANS, 0000.999.10106

At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.

As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.

After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”

Evenign Post
Evening Post, October 30, 1821

Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.

Matthew Wittmann


I will be on NPR’s All Things Considered today to discuss the announcement by Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew that a woman will either be joining or replacing Alexander Hamilton on a redesigned $10 bill scheduled to enter into circulation in 2020.

It will be the first major change to U.S. paper currency since the present small-size Federal Reserve Notes were introduced in 1929 (with allowances for the anti-counterfeiting alterations of the past few years). The full details are on the Treasury’s website here, and the announcement comes on the heels of a popular campaign to replace Andrew Jackson, headlined by the Women on 20s movement that I have written about before here and here.

It seems to me that there are two likely explanations for this decision and the timing of the announcement. The first is that the ten-dollar bill was already in the process of being  redesigned because of a lawsuit and pressure from the American Council of the Blind and other disability advocates to make US currency more usable for people who lack the ability to distinguish between bills visually. The United States has been one of the few countries that does not differentiate its bills either by using different sizes for various denominations or by adding some tactile feature that would indicate the value of the note. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving has issued a white paper that includes a timeline for the gradual phase in of new tactile currency, with the ten-dollar bill leading the way in 2020.

The other mitigating factor is pretty clearly that the idea of putting a woman on US currency has become something of a national conversation of late. During my time at the ANS, no other subject has seemed to generate as much interest as this, and the Women on 20s campaign clearly had gained some momentum. Indeed, the fact Secretary of State Lew linked the introduction of the new bill to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment explicitly echoed that campaign.

The question of course turns to exactly who the woman should be. Lew said that officials are seeking advice nationwide and introduced a hashtag #TheNew10 to solicit public feedback. C8D00181-155D-451F-67528C91B231E573The winner in the recently concluded online voting for the Women on 20s campaign was Harriet Tubman, and she would certainly deserve the honor. My own preferred candidate remains Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer who was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But I also believe that Amelia Earhart is perhaps the best candidate insomuch as she was an apolitical figure who is something of an American hero and could thus mobilize broad support. I also think her status as a cultural icon would be beneficial moving forward because part of the problem with US currency has been its narrow focus on representing political figures. Choosing someone like Earhart would ostensibly make it possible to include other notable Americans beyond the world of politics. Actually in the context of this specific bill, Helen Keller would be the most logical choice as she embodies both of the rationales behind the $10 redesign! In any case, the choice will be made by the end of the year it will be fascinating to see how this discussion progresses over the coming months.

It was interesting to hear Lew state that Alexander Hamilton will continue to have a place on the bill in addition to the new portrait of a woman. I am not sure how this will work design-wise. They could do something like the reverse of the 1896 $2 “Educational Series” note that featured Martha and George Washington:

reverse 1896Or the ten-dollar Legal Tender note of 1901 with Lewis and Clark flanking a dominant central design:


Whomever the choice, it does seem past time that a woman finds a place on American paper money. And let’s not forget the boon that this new and long-overdue tactile currency will be for the visually impaired.

Matthew Wittmann

Update: Listen to the segment below.

[iframe src=<iframe src=”http://www.npr.org/player/embed/415537140/415537141″ width=”100%” height=”290″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no”></iframe>]

The Wildcat Bank of Tinkerville

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about the Bank of Brest, one of the multitude of wildcat banks that sprouted up around Michigan after it was granted statehood in 1837 and liberalized its banking regulations. The stories of excess and chicanery that accompanied this episode are sometimes entertaining, but they also often fail to capture the impact that failed banks had on the community. It is also sometimes difficult to understand how people were fooled by what in many cases seem like transparently bad banks.

Library Company of Philadelphia
Library Company of Philadelphia

Luckily, there is a wonderful first-person account of the rise and fall of a wildcat bank by Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864). Born Caroline Matilda Stansbury, she was a well-educated woman from New York who moved to Michigan to head the Detroit Female Seminary in 1835 with her husband, classics scholar William Kirkland. William became caught up in the speculative land boom that accompanied statehood, and in 1837 purchased eight-hundred acres of land where the village of Pinckney was founded about fifty miles west of Detroit. Feeling somewhat isolated in their new environs, Caroline spent her days writing long and observant letters to friends and colleagues about the trials and tribulations of Western life. These letters coalesced into her first book, A New Home–Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life, which was published by C. S. Francis in 1840 and quickly became a runaway success that went through numerous editions. Writing under the nom de plume Mrs. Mary Clavers, Kirkland’s work consisted of perceptive and often satirical sketches of life in the fictionalized frontier town of ‘Montacute.’

University of California
University of California

Although undoubtedly lightly fictionalized, her account was frank enough to earn the ire of friends and neighbors who saw themselves in offending passages and disdained her portrayal of the mores that prevailed in the wilds of Michigan. The Kirklands moved back to New York City in 1843, and Caroline published two more books about her experiences out west. She was active in New York literary circles and was well-acquainted with many of the most renowned Anglo-American writers of the day. After William’s death in an accident in 1846, she continued to write to support her family and edited a variety of different publications.

In a scholarly edition of A New Home published by Rutgers University Press, Sandra A. Zagarell praises Kirkland as a “sophisticated cultural critic” who “engaged in wide-ranging, often satiric commentary on the socialcultural conventions and codes prevailing in both the eastern and western United States (xi-xii).” Indeed the lively passage excerpted below chronicling the rise and fall of the “Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Bank of Tinkerville” is a wonderful example of her keen eye for detail and sharp wit. Kirkland’s narrative captures something of the enthusiasm that so often accompanied such ventures, at least initially, as well as the impact that these schemes had on the community. The entire book, which you can find here, is well worth a read. For those in haste, this engaging excerpt on wildcat banking will have to do.


The very next intelligence from our urban rival came in the shape of a polite note to Mr. Clavers, offering him any amount of stock in the ‘Merchants’ and Manufacturer’s Bank of Tinkerville.’ My honored spouse–I acknowledge it with regret–is any thing but an ‘enterprising man.’ But our neighbor, Mr. Rivers, or his astute father for him, thought this chance for turning paper into gold and silver too tempting to be slighted, and entered at once into the business of making money on a large scale.

Continue reading The Wildcat Bank of Tinkerville

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.


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