Slavery and slaves were often portrayed on antebellum Southern bank
notes as well as on notes issued during the Civil War. When rummaging
through some images recently I discovered a rather unusual
transformation that seems to suggest that race was an issue in some
peoples’ minds even when selecting vignettes for bank notes.
Farmers and farming related scenes were a popular topic that was
often chosen when bankers were picking out vignettes to use on their
bank’s most widely seen advertising, its bank notes. Picking vignettes
was a serious business, with a lot of thought given to how these
illustrations would portray the bank’s position, customer focus and values.
The Thames Bank of Laurel, Ind., a not particularly successful bank
whose notes were often altered so that they appeared to be the issues
of more successful institutions, chose Wellstood, Hay & Whiting to
produce its notes and also chose two agriculturally themed vignettes,
a farmer feeding pigs and a farmer carrying a basket of corn to be
used on its $5 notes. The subject of interest for this article is the
The Bank of Howardsville, Va., also selected Wellstood, Hay &
Whiting to print its notes and selected the same vignette of a farmer
carrying a basket of corn — with an important difference. The farmer
depicted on the pre-war Indiana note is Caucasian.
The same vignette on the Virginia note has been altered so that the
figure is obviously African American. As if to accentuate the change,
a tear in the shirt sleeve was apparently added to make sure that
there was no mistake made regarding the man’s ethnicity. The man’s
skin color is framed by a tear in his white shirt.
This type of alteration for regional consumption was quite uncommon
but certainly not unheard of. Some other more subtle changes are known
— for example, a vignette of a farmer watching harvesters on a
Michigan note becomes an overseer watching slaves harvest in the
distance on Southern notes. The bank note companies were not in the
habit of asking too many questions when it came to artistic matters.
They were perhaps among the first originators of “the customer is
always right” philosophy.
Engravers could practice their skills on steel plates to produce
many subtle and not so subtle changes, including changing a person’s race.