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The Cost of Independence: Highlights from the Early American Paper Money Collection

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Today’s guest post is by Anastasia “Tasha” Binkowski. Tasha is a Librarian-in-Residence working in the Rare Book & Special Collections and Manuscript Divisions.

eight dollar note from 1775
Back of an eight dollar note issued by the Continental Congress featuring nature print of henbit and two buttercups. (Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, November 29, 1775)

The Early American Paper Money Collection, newly rehoused in Rare Book and Special Collections at the Library of Congress, probably isn’t like any money you’ve ever seen before. These bills are roughly the size of a playing card, include fractional denominations like 1/6th of a dollar, and they aren’t green. Of course, it isn’t easy being green, but it is easy to explore the collection using its finding aid here:

forty shilling note from 1775
Back of a forty shilling note issued by Pennsylvania featuring nature print of undetermined leaf. (Hall and Sellers, December 8, 1775)

The earliest paper money authorized by a government in the Western world was issued here in America, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1690. The earliest bill in The Early American Paper Money Collection was printed in 1746 for the Delaware colony by a name that may be familiar: Benjamin Franklin. Except for this early bill, the paper money printed by Franklin in the Library’s collection is also attributed to his business partner David Hall. When Franklin eventually left the business to go abroad, Hall continued printing money with William Sellers. Franklin, Hall, and Sellers printed paper money out of the same shop for Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, as well as the Continental Congress. If you look at the back of many bills in the collection you will see “Philadelphia: Printed by Hall and Sellers.” Near those names you’ll also see a detailed image of a leaf. This leaf isn’t just a design element, it’s an anti-counterfeiting tactic invented by Benjamin Franklin.

three pence note from 1764
Three pence note issued by Pennsylvania, here spelled ‘Pennsilvania’. (B. Franklin and D. Hall, June 18, 1764)

The counterfeiting of these bills was rampant from the start. Most common were attempts to alter the denomination by adding a zero or, if the counterfeiter themselves owned a printing press, simply copying the entire design and printing more. As a printer, as in all his professions, Franklin was unique. To catch counterfeiters adding zeroes, he tried purposefully misspelling “Pennsylvania” in different ways on each high-denomination bill. To stump those with their own press, he would use multiple typefaces, dingbats (symbols), and punctuation marks in a combination only he possessed. Franklin would also invent a method for printing images from nature that were virtually inimitable.

His method was kept secret from all potential counterfeiters, so secret that many early scholars believed these prints were created from hand-engravings.

We know now, based on continued study and a surviving block for printing, discovered by the Delaware County Institute of Science and explained by James Green in the 2013 Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia (p25–28), that it actually involved double-casting: creating a plaster mold of a leaf and pouring type metal into the impression. By casting first in plaster and then in metal, the resulting metal piece would have the same raised veins and texture of the original leaf and could be nailed to wood to make it the same height as the rest of Franklin’s type. The details of this image would be incredibly challenging to copy by hand-engraving and the block itself would be impossible to duplicate without the exact same leaf and the knowledge of how to create both strong enough plaster and the right metal alloy. Despite all this, counterfeiters would ultimately devise a way, by transfer and tracing, to reproduce the look of these nature prints without having to cast anything.

fifteen shilling note from 1776
Fifteen shilling note issued by the colony of New Jersey featuring the signature of John Hart. (Burlington: Isaac Collins, March 25, 1776)

Since counterfeits were so common, you might wonder if any of the bills at the Library are fakes. It’s difficult to be certain due to the poor condition of some, but based on information available through a number of very good reference texts (including Eric P Newman’s classic The Early Paper Money of America), which allow us to verify a combination of details, we believe the collection is entirely authentic.  Some of these details include knowledge of what denominations were printed or authorized on which date, if there were purposeful misspellings or broken type, the look or makeup of the paper, and who signed each issue. That said, a counterfeit would be useless if it couldn’t fool anyone and even signatures can be believably faked with practice.

john hart signature from the Declaration of Independence
Stone Engraving of John Hart’s signature from the Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of the National Archives.

The most notable signature among the hundreds scrawled on this collection is probably that of John Hart. John Hart, (ca 1713–1779), was a farmer, judge, and public servant in New Jersey who, after being elected vice president of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, also became a member of the Second Continental Congress just in time to make history. Hart’s name can be found on both the fifteen shillings bill from New Jersey, March 25, 1776 and the Declaration of Independence!

Readers interested in learning more on this topic may find the Library of Congress Research Guide “Money: Researching the History of U.S. and International Currencies” useful. You can also look to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History which has an ongoing exhibition called The Value of Money and the American Numismatic Society website which also has a wealth (no pun intended) of information and many images of similar bills.

Comments (2)

  1. Very good collecton!

  2. Wonderfully curated and well written!

    The undetermined leaf on the forty shilling note might be from an ironwood tree (ostrya virginiana).

    sincerely yours,

    a forest ecology student

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