Portraying race on obsolete bank notes: Collecting Paper

Note printers served customers even if it meant changing vignettes from black to white
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 12/05/15
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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 latter vignette.

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.

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