They were the most beautiful federal notes ever issued, vastly more artistic than anything in circulation in the United States today. And they were abject failures, replaced by new designs within two years in response to complaints from bank tellers and the public. They were the Series 1896 silver certificates — the Educational Series of $1, $2, and $5 notes. In a contest between artistry and practicality, art lost.
What happened? Why were notes whose beauty is so prized today replaced so quickly? Blame the mural-style artwork, the “newness” factor, their susceptibility to counterfeiting, unhappy bank tellers, and saleswomen who objected to the “indelicate figures” on the notes. As the New York Times reported in 1897, they were “doomed.”
The effort was noble. Treasury and Bureau of Engraving and Printing officials wanted to raise note design to new heights, much like officials sought to improve U.S. coinage design, starting a decade later. But a number of problems conspired to end the experiment sooner than expected.
Replacing the designs
When silver certificates were first issued in 1878 in denominations of $10 and higher, the designs used were pretty similar to designs used on notes of other categories in circulation — a portrait vignette to the left or right of the face, a lot of lathework on both face and back, denominational markings. The 1878 designs were utilitarian but hardly beautiful. The decision to replace them with designs of much greater artistic beauty was like the effort a decade later to begin replacing less-inspired coinage designs with designs by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Weinman and James Earle Fraser.
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By 1893, Treasury Department and Bureau of Engraving and Printing officials had begun talking to artists about the next generation of silver certificate. Sometime before Nov. 1, 1893, researcher Gene Hessler writes, the Treasury Department had selected three muralists to create designs for the new notes. All three men — Will H. Low, E.H. Blashfield and Walter Shirlaw — were established artists, with Low and Blashfield being Paris-trained as painters and Shirlaw also being a bank note engraver. According to Hessler in his U.S. Essay, Proof and Specimen Notes, each was commissioned at $800 per design selected.
The designs for the faces of the new notes would depart from the portrait style used on the existing silver certificates they were replacing. Officials gave the muralists a broad canvas with which to work, deciding, for the notes’ faces, to let each design encompass nearly the entire side of the note. A decision was also made to let the notes adhere as closely as possible to the designers’ original paintings. To do that, the BEP chose not to use lathework on the faces of the notes. According to Hessler, the 1896 silver certificates are the only federal notes issued since 1861 to lack this form of printing. That would become a problem.
For the $1 silver certificate, Low painted a mural called History Instructing Youth. It depicts a seated woman as History, a motherly right hand resting on the hip of a young boy (Youth) standing next to her, while she points with her extended left hand in the general direction of the District of Columbia in the background, the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol both easily identifiable. She seems to be telling the child about the nation’s history.