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Money Matters: Harriet Tubman, the “Grand Watermelon” debate, and Redemption

Since the Treasury’s announcement in April that Harriet Tubman would be featured on the front of the new $20 bill, the design change has become a popular topic of conversation. Mention of the note even surfaced in President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he jokingly remarked that he would be earning “some serious Tubmans” upon leaving office. Currency design and money in general are also popular research topics here at the Library. We have a rich collection of relevant and authoritative sources to answer questions, along with topical research guides that specifically point to sources on U. S. money and the history of money.

While browsing the reference collection on this topic in the Science & Business Reading Room, I ran across the title 100 Greatest American Currency Notes by Q. David Bowers and David M. Sundman.   Its cover features a rare $1000 “Grand Watermelon” note from 1890, named as such because of the three zeros that physically resemble large juicy watermelons. Apparently, the Treasury Department and the public were not fans of the design and quickly took steps to change it. However, prior to that, at least 18,000 notes were printed, with only three collectible examples known today which are valued at more than $1.1 million each.

Courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US-$1000-TN-1890-Fr-379a.jpg

Courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US-$1000-TN-1890-Fr-379a.jpg

It might appear the Treasury’s objection to this design had something to do with the absurd watermelon resemblance and the undignified nickname that came about as a result. However, the true objection, as reported in the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 21, 1892, was that the design back, which was completely covered with engraving, made it difficult to plainly see the red and blue fibers running through the new distinctive paper. These and other changes were all made in an effort to deter counterfeiting – the same reason we change designs today.

My research on the “debate” behind the design changes to the 1890 Treasury note led me to another interesting story - “Fate of the Pennies”  – from the Savannah Courier from December 17, 1891:

An ingenious youth employed to sweep out a New York bank devoted attention for a considerable period to gathering up the crumbs from the tills…In the course of time, he got together a quantity of scraps of the sort sufficient to fill a pint measure, and he sent them on to the redemption bureau at Washington in a box, with the explanation that they had been eaten by mice. He stated the amount at $200, and asked for new bills in exchange. His little game was betrayed on the face of it by the fact that the pieces forwarded represented, if anything, not less than $1,000.

Moral of the story – know your money (and its weight)! And make the library your resource for answers.

Inspecting sheets of paper money, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Washington, D.C. Keystone View Company, Manufacturers and Publishers, c1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02936

Inspecting sheets of paper money, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Washington, D.C. Keystone View Company, Manufacturers and Publishers, c1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02936

Update: This is a guest post from one of our new Business Reference librarians Yvonne Dooley.  She will be joining the Inside Adams blog team so be on the look-out for her posts!

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