Fun Payment Facts: Currency Throughout US History

by Erin McCune on September 2, 2009

in Erin McCune, Federal Reserve, San Francisco, Treasury & Cash Management

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This afternoon I visited the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I am on the board of the SF Treasury Management Association and every year we organize a tour for our members. The Fed Reserve tours are open to the public and geared toward high school-aged kids. But everyone gets giddy around piles and piles of cash and our adult tour of bankers and corporate treasury professionals enjoyed it very much.

I’ve had more than my share of exposure to cash vaults; my first work in payments was a series of process improvement projects for a huge West Coast bank, so the vault tour wasn’t as exhilarating for me. But what really impressed me today was the SF Fed Reserve’s collection of historic US currency. Check out these cool images…

Colonial Currency
In pounds and shillings!

Colonial Currency, Pennsylvania, 50 shillings, 1775

Independence Era
Funding a revolution

Continental Currency, one-third dollar, 1776
Benjamin Franklin printed this note, which was issued to finance the American Revolution. Backed solely by the promise of tax revenues upon victory, “Continentals” were quickly devalued, leading to the popular expression, “not worth a Continental.”

(More continental congress era currency images here and historical context here)

Westward Expansion
Two attempts to form a national bank fail; in the absence of strong regulation state charted banks and nearly anyone else was able to issue currencies

Private Issue, Peabody Ladies Furnishings, 3 cents 1862-1863
Issued by a women’s clothing store in Massachusetts, this privately issued note illustrates the variety and lack of uniformity of most Free Banking Era currency.

(More Westward Expansion era currency images here and historical context here)

Civil War
Financing the Civil War

Confederate Currency, $10, 1861
A slave picking cotton is depicted. Backed by cotton and printed in excess, Confederate Currency quickly depreciated in value, becoming worthless.

Demand Note, $10, 1861
Demand notes were considered to be the first “greenbacks.”  In an attempt to create confidence in paper money, government officials were paid in these early greenbacks, which were named after the color of their reverse side.

(More Civil War era currency images here and historical context here)

Industrial Revolution
National banks issued their own currencies, backed by the Treasury

Legal Tender Note, $10, 1901
This note portrays Pablo, a bison symbolizing the strength and pioneer spirit in the American West. The portraits of Lewis and Clark were included to generate interest in the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

(More Industrial revolution era currency images here and historical context here)

Metal Standards
Gold and Silver Certificates and the emergence of the Gold Standard

Gold Certificate, $10,000, 1882
An extremely rare and valuable example of a Gold Certificate, this is one of two notes in existence. The reverse side of Gold Certificates was printed in a golden orange, symbolic of their redemption value in gold coin.

Silver Certificate, $5, 1896
A controversial note, this Silver Certificate was part of an educational series. It was deemed inappropriate for American children due to its portrayal of a scantily dressed woman symbolizing liberty. The note was quickly removed from circulation.

(More gold/silver certificate images here and historical context here)

National Stability Era
The Federal Reserve System is born

Federal Reserve Note, $10,000, 1914
Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln, is featured on this extremely rare note. It was one of the last $10,000 larger-sized notes issued.

(More National Stability era currency images here and historical context here)

World Standard
The modern era

Bank Transfer Note, $100,000, 1934
Featuring a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, this note was the largest note printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Bank Transfer notes were used only for transactions among Federal Reserve Banks and not for public circulation.

Federal Reserve Note, $100, 1996
In March, 1996, the $100 note was redesigned to incorporate a variety of anti-counterfeiting features. These security measures, along with others, have been included in the redesigns of the $50, $20, $10, $5 notes.

(More  modern era currency images here and historical context here)

You can view more images and read more about the history of currency on the SF Federal Reserve website here.

NOTE: All images courtesy of the SF Fed Reserve American Currency Exhibit

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