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.
Connect with Coin World:
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.