Why did an 1880 $1 United States note in 2014 auction bring 100 times its normal price?

Heavily worn note has a link to a special event in history
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 09/03/16
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Coin World’s managing editor, Bill Gibbs, discovered probably one of the poorest quality pieces of U.S. paper currency ever sold at public auction as he was going though a Bonhams 2014 sale called “Treasures from The Caren Archive — How History Unfolds on Paper.” The noteworthy aspect of his discovery wasn’t the note’s miserable condition, but rather that the $1 Series 1880 United States note (Friedberg 28) sold for $15,000, or about 100 times what would normally be expected.

That’s because it is the story behind the note and its direct link to Thomas Alva Edison that are important. Its face is virtually obliterated by an inscription in ink, matching the reddish brown color of the seal, that reads in full: “This bill is one from a total amount of $50.40 which was the first bill collected for the sale of Edison Electric Light in first Central Station District, New York City. Jan. 18 / 1883. Ansonia Brass & Copper Company. 17 & 19 Cliff Street. This light was furnished through a Meter. Chas. L. Clarke.” The note is then signed twice more in black ink by Charles L. Clarke.

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Bonhams titled the lot “Turning on the Lights in New York City: The Most Historic ‘First Dollar’ Bill.” They explain that Clarke was the chief engineer of the Edison Electric Light Company and responsible for the world’s first commercial power plant, Pearl Street Station in New York City. 

The facility started generating electricity for New York businesses in September 1882 but no charges to customers were made until Edison was reasonably certain of continued uninterrupted service. That happened in January 1883 when the $50.40 paid by Ansonia Brass, partially with this note, became the first payment of the $9,000 collected by Edison Electric that year. Edison Electric merged into General Electric in 1892.

The item was lot 232 in a 305-lot sale that otherwise had nothing to do with paper money. 

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