Nearly all of us - nearly all of us who live in the United States, at least - have spent all our lives looking at the same style of paper currency: those things that say "Federal Reserve Note" and have a dead President in the center of the bill in an oval frame. Now that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has begun distributing a new design of U.S. currency, we've started seeing some variations in the theme; certainly we get to see the details of the portrait engravers' work much more clearly. Still, though, we rarely stop to appreciate the skill and artistry of the engravers... after all, it's just money. We just take it out and spend it.
But what if the Bureau of Engraving and Printing decided, as they did in the 1890s, to use our paper money as a showcase for art?
Silver certificates are an older form of U.S. currency; their value was backed by silver held in the U.S. Treasury, and they could be redeemed at the Treasury for silver dollars. An 1886 Act of Congress authorized the creation of a new series of silver certificates, and so it came to pass that the Secretary of the Treasury gave the Bureau of Engraving and Printing the task of designing and printing the new currency.
Claude M. Johnson, then Chief of the BEP, had definite ideas about the role of art in paper money. By 1893 Johnson and the BEP had decided on four artists - the muralists Edwin H. Blashfield, Will H. Low, C. S. Reinhart and Walter Shirlaw - to design the new currency, and planned to award a commission of $800 for each design the BEP accepted.
The noted artists, together with the BEP's talented engravers, created a new currency of unparalleled beauty - extraordinary designs, the likes of which had never been seen before in the U.S. and have never been equalled since.
Will H. Low's design for the $1 note, entitled History Instructing Youth, shows a female History with a young student standing beside her, gesturing to an open book of history before her. An olive branch rests against the book, holding it open to show the Constitution of the United States upon the page. Both the Washington Memorial and the Capitol Dome can be seen in the background landscape. The outside border of the note shows 23 wreaths, each bearing the name of a noteworthy American - not surprisingly starting with Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, but also including such names as poet Henry Longfellow, inventor Robert Fulton, and author Nathaniel Hawthorne, among many others. The seal of the Treasury appears in the lower right.
Low's original painting, which now hangs in the BEP's Washington, D.C. offices, was slowly and artfully reproduced as an intaglio printing plate by the BEP's talented engraving staff.
Shortly after the $1 bill was released to the public, Bureau engraver G.F.C. Smillie was informed by a friend that the word tranquillity was misspelled in the tiny Constitution that adorned the book. "Rats," Smillie reportedly replied. "The word was spelled that way in the original Constitution..."
Smillie was, of course, correct... even though, at the time, tranquillity (with two "l"s) was the accepted spelling.
"Now at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing we must 'follow copy,'" a Bureau spokesman later stated, "and cannot demonstrate superior knowledge in the face of absolute authority. Hence, 'tranquility' is on the new note. There is plenty of authority for spelling that word economically in respect to 'l's."
The $1 note was released to the public on July 14, 1896, the first of the series to be put into circulation. Because of the public's unfamiliarity with the new money, though, some people began illegally "raising" the values of the bills by changing the numbers in the corners and then passing the notes off as "the new $5s" or "the new $10s".
The memory of this may be why the present-day U.S. Treasury chose to release the highest denominations of our new currency first, and then slowly proceeded downwards as people grew accustomed to the new designs. (It would make little sense for a counterfeiter to take a new $100 bill and try to persuade people it was a new style of $1.)
The back of the 1896 $1, featuring intricate geometric lathe work and a winged, shield-bearing Liberty in each of the upper corners, carries traditionally-styled portraits of both George and Martha Washington. The portraits were engraved by Alfred Sealey and Charles Burt, respectively, and the overall design of the back was the work of Thomas F. Morris.
Recently made the Chief of the BEP's engraving division, Morris had his own concerns about the 1896 note designs. They were the only notes since 1861 which had no geometric lathe designs on the face of the notes, and the intricate lathe-work served as a strong deterrent to counterfeiters. Perhaps this accounts for the unusually intricate and thorough lathe-work which Morris applied to the backs of the 1896 designs.
People being what they are, there were several public statements that the central "One" on the note was irresponsible. The reasoning was thus: "no one should come between George and Martha Washington".
Don't blame me. I don't make the news. I only report it.
Low's original design for the 1896 $2 note, Peace and War (or Peace and Defence), shows a female Peace and a male War sitting on opposite sides of a stone bench. Peace's extended olive branch crosses the sword of War, with a stone eagle standing over the branch and weapon - a visual allegory of the bald eagle which holds olive branches and arrows on the nation's Great Seal. At Peace's feet is a farming scythe, or possibly a ploughshare; at War's feet, a cannon.
As has been noted, BEP Chief Claude M. Johnson had strong artistic opinions. He requested a number of changes to the design, adjusting Peace's chin and hair and repositioning the head of War, changes which Low capably executed. After these adjustments were made, however, Johnson still wasn't satisfied with the design.
Johnson finally decided to reject the design, choosing instead to take E.H. Blashfield's design for the $50 note and adapt it for the $2. Johnson's decision was not well-received by either artist. Blashfield objected for artistic reasons, as shall be seen, but Low's objections were on a more pragmatic level: he didn't get paid for this design.
Thankfully the third artist, Walter Shirlaw, was uninvolved in the conflict, and thus was left undisturbed to design the all-time masterpiece of American currency.
Electricity Presenting Light To The World is an extraordinary work. A winged female Electricity holds an electric lamp aloft high over America. At left, Jupiter holds the lightning in his right hand which powers the lamp; in his left hand reins of lightning yoke his horses. Fame sits at Electricity's left, trumpeting her achievement to the world. To Electricity's right is a bald eagle, standing guard over the Western Hemisphere. Behind the eagle, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, is Peace, her left hand upraised beside a dove. This remarkable blend of legend, patriotism and beauty came together to create a note widely regarded to be the most beautiful currency in U.S. history.
"The arrangement of this composition," the New York Times wrote, "the grace of pose in each figure, and the Idea connected with the designs of this artist entitle it to a place beside the finest allegorical designs in the world." Though the design is not as well-known today, many who are familiar with the piece still believe this statement to be true.
Though most people were impressed with what the Times called the bill's "beautiful and imposing" design, however, Anthony Comstock was not. Comstock, a religious fundamentalist and founder of the Watch and Ward Society, found the use of feminine nudity on the nation's currency to be appalling and loathesome. The Society therefore actively campaigned for the recalling of all the bills. To appease this radical group, the BEP made plans to install more clothing on the figures for the 1897 issue of the note.
It's of interest, perhaps, to note that the U.S. Mint has also faced difficulties with the Watch and Ward Society. The "Standing Liberty" quarter of 1916, pictured at left, raised the Society's objections to Liberty's partially-uncovered breast, and because of their opinionated influence the coin was redesigned soon later.
Perhaps to make a point of their own, the Mint's artisans chose to cover Liberty's breast with ring-mail armor.
General Ulysses S. Grant graces the left side of the $5 note's reverse, with General Philip Sheridan on the right and a winged and shielded Liberty in between. One can only imagine how this note was received in the South, issued only thirty-one years after the Civil War with two victorious Northern generals pictured on the back. Though the two side portraits were engraved by Lorenzo Hatch, the face of Liberty has been said to "greatly resemble the wife of Thomas F. Morris"; this suggests, quite reasonably, that the central figure and the beautiful lathe-work were his.
Edwin H. Blashfield's Science Presenting Steam And Electricity To Commerce And Manufacture appears on the $2 bills of the 1896 series. A wise and matronly Science presents her two young charges to the flanking figures of Commerce and Manufacture, who look on with upturned faces. The young Electricity carries a coil of wire wound into an electromagnet; Steam, slightly more mature, holds a lever which controls the gear of an engine. Tall fronds form a central circle for the figures, framing them and setting them off sharply from the white background; the sides of the note are filled out with carved mantels and shields.
Blashfield originally intended this design for the $50 note, but when Will H. Low's original design for the $2 was rejected Bureau Chief Johnson called for this design of Blashfield's to replace it. Blashfield resisted the change. "Please tell Mr. Johnson," he wrote to G.F.C. Smillie on April 18, 1895, "that in addition to my other reasons... I also object distinctly on artistic grounds to the change from fifty to a two. You can easily see that the 50 is an important compositional factor in the building up of my design... It could be changed to a twenty or a ten, without any injury to the balance of the composition but not to any denomination expressed by a single numeral."
Blashfield's objection was quite valid, as can be seen. Nonetheless work on the $2 notes proceeded, and though the center of the note is indeed somewhat heavily weighted the note is still considered elegant, dignified and effective.
Robert Fulton, inventor of the steam engine, and Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, share the back of the 1896 $2 note in twin portraits engraved by Lorenzo Hatch. Thomas F. Morris created the remainder of the design. It is perhaps the only bill in United States history to give tribute to scientists and inventors alone while neglecting the usual display of generals and politicians.
Shirlaw's beautiful design for the $10 note, Agriculture and Forestry, represents its two subjects as graceful, vigorous figures standing hand-in-hand. The energy of the two is emphasized by a haze of sunbeams which set the couple off from the note's background. An old but beautiful woman, representing the South, sits to the right of the couple, holding a large jug of wine; to the left is a youth representing the West, two doves alighted on the border beside him. Ocean waves play about the couple's feet, and the borders of the note are replete with a cornucopia of corn, grains, fruits and flowers.
This $10 note, anticipated for some time, was never released.
However popular the 1896 artwork may have been to the public, it proved to be unpopular with bankers. "All judges of good designs and workmanship have admitted the superiority of the new notes to anything ever before produced by the Government," the Times reported on August 15, 1897. However, it continues, "Bankers have generally denounced them as the most unsatisfactory notes ever issued... the denominations of the notes were not distinctly marked. Paying tellers depend upon the figure in the upper left-hand corner, to guide the eye in counting bills rapidly handled." (Certainly this was a legitimate complaint in the case of the $10 note, where the numerals are a considerable distance from the corners.) Also, because of the high amount of fine inkwork used in the backgrounds, "complaint was heard that the new notes became smudgy and suspicious-looking with a little use".
The BEP designers began work on correcting these problems. Engravers began the process of creating new plates for the series, adding large open spaces of uninked background and making the corner numbers clearer and more prominent. Geometric lathe-work was also designed into the front upper corners of the revised bills, as an added deterrent to counterfeiting.
Politics, however, chose this moment to step in and play the 1896 currency a devastating blow. The new currency designs had been progressing with the approval of J. G. Carlisle, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland chose to retire at the end of 1896, leaving the Presidency open to either the "free-silver" advocate William Jennings Bryan or the Republican William McKinley. Neither candidate was ideal for Carlisle; he disapproved of Bryan's free-silver movement, believing it would lead to monetary instability, yet being a prominent Democrat he could not bring himself to continue in his office under the Republican McKinley. And so it was that, when McKinley was elected at year's end, Secretary Carlisle retired and the Treasury was placed in the hands of a new Secretary, Lyman J. Gage.
Secretary Gage, a bank president, preferred practicality to artistry. Shortly after taking office in 1897 he stopped the work of refining the 1896 designs, and instead announced his plans to have "practically one design" for all United States currency. The new designs would be simple, clear and straightforward. "Neither will fresco painters be called in to make [future currency] designs", the Times reported on May 4, 1897.
"It can be said authoritatively... that no more of the so-called 'new certificates' will be printed," the Times went on to say. "It may take years to wipe out the entire issue and substitute bills."
The currency designs submitted to the BEP by the fourth artist, C. S. Reinhart, appear to have all been lost or destroyed. All that remains now of his efforts are some archived letters between Reinhart and the Bureau, referring to designs with tantalizing names like The United States Crowning Education and Labor and the $20 Mayflower Note. Those designs are now lost, though perhaps echoes of the former can be seen in a BEP experimental die - made over a half-century later, in 1951 - entitled Success Crowning Commerce and Labor.
Two other artists, at least, have been recorded as submitting designs for the series, but their designs have also been lost. Not even a title can be found for Arthur Flemens' submitted design. George W. Maynard, a contemporary of Shirlaw, submitted a design entitled Civilization Enthroned and Crowned, with Civilization evidently flanked by figures representing Adventure and Discovery. It, too, has been lost to history.
The currency which was in distribution soon became a rarity, virtually unknown to anyone save numismatists and currency collectors. For such a short-lived series, however, it's surprising how many of the notes have survived the intervening century. It appears that many people refused to trade the 1896 notes in to be destroyed, preferring instead to keep them for their artistry alone.
Secretary Gage may have ended the currency series of 1896, but thankfully he was unable to put an end to the appreciation of beauty.
- Gene Hessler's book U.S. Essay Proof & Specimen Notes (1979), a superbly researched (though poorly proofread!) book, provides rare pieces of information about both the designs and the engravers who created them. Researching this page would have been futile without Hessler's excellent work to lead the way.
- The Bureau of Engraving & Printing, Washington, D.C., was good enough to produce a series of souvenir cards for numismatic shows over the years, which have proven to be an excellent resource for anyone trying to document obscure currency designs.
- Several articles from The New York Times, taken from issues between 1892 and 1897, provided invaluable information for this page, particularly regarding bankers' reactions to the notes and the lives of Treasury Secretaries Carlisle and Gage. (Did you know that Carlisle was considered as a Presidential candidate in 1892?)
- Barry Krause's Collecting Paper Money for Pleasure & Profit (1992) and James F. Ruddy's Photograde for U.S. Coins (1988) both provided valuable, and sometimes obscure, information as well, and are both (particularly the former) interesting reading in their own right.
- Lastly, Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech's biography Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927) provides information about Comstock and his frightening, yet remarkably effective, censorship efforts. It's of interest to note that, over the course of his lifetime, Comstock reportedly had more literature burned in the name of moral purity than even the Third Reich was able to equal.