Thursday, March 10, 2011

Want: Un-funny Money

If memory serves, my sophomore American history class covered nothing more than a bunch of grown men bickering about how to back paper money. I’m sure other things came up, but that particular bit of history was so spectacularly, profoundly, mind-numbingly dull that it stands out even all these years later.

In the hands of our dear friend A. E. Youman, though, the finer points of early American currency take on a sense of immediacy. He got to the meat of the issue: Was it real, or was it fake?

In 1860, more than 8,000 American banks were issuing bills. (Everybody but the federal government was at it, it seems.) This made the Civil War era an excellent time to be a forger of paper money in America, if not a user of paper money. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a third all paper money in circulation in 1865 was counterfeit.

Part of the problem was that each of these 8,000 banks designed its own bills, creating a wild diversity of styles and making it almost impossible to tell what was real. The Coin Site says, “The earliest notes are rather plain but as the need for anti-counterfeiting methods arose, talented artists were employed to create intricate vignettes that were difficult to duplicate. The vignettes are the most attractive to collectors since they show life during the period in which the notes were produced. There are hundreds of scenes, including those representing agriculture, industry and commerce and showing sailing ships, farms, antique trains, geography as well as allegorical representations of Faith, Hope, Justice, Liberty and Peace. The notes are often multi-colored and in high grade, are quite beautiful.”

This counterfeiting free-for-all supposedly ended with the passage of the National Bank Act in 1863—almost 10 years before Youman’s book hit shelves. (After this, banks were still licensed to print money, but the government controlled most of the bill’s design, making them harder to fake.) In 1865, the Secret Service was founded to further control forgery.

These efforts didn’t quite do the job, if we believe Youman. In this 1872(ish) entry, he warns readers not only to check the quality of the bill and its printing, but also to be sure it wasn’t issued by a broken bank—one that had gone belly up, apparently taking with it the currency it had printed. 

(P.S.: If I’d spent as much time on my American history homework as I did on this post, I’d probably be president by now.)

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