One of the first decisions an antebellum banker had to make was
what the new bank’s notes were going to look like. Salesmen from the
bank note printing companies had books full of stock vignettes
(illustrations) that could be chosen to suit the aesthetic
inclinations of the persons designated to pick the designs.
Designs often reflected the name of the bank. The Farmers Bank
might, for example, select vignettes of farmers plowing or harvest
scenes while the Railroad Bank would logically lean toward vignettes
of locomotives, passenger trains crossing bridges and the like.
If, for some reason, President Smith wanted a portrait of Mrs.
Smith to adorn his notes, this too could be done. Custom vignettes
were engraved from either paintings or photographic images that were
supplied by the customer and cost significantly more than standard designs.
Once the general design concept had been developed, it was the
responsibility of the salesman to ensure that the customer was
completely satisfied before the steel engraved plate was completed.
Sometimes this was accomplished by producing a “paste up.” Various
stock “pieces and parts” were printed from existing plates and pasted
onto card stock or bank note paper the size of the proposed note. This
gave the banker a chance to see how everything would come together for
the proposed design. Sometimes changes were made to the paste up;
sometimes lots of changes.
The note shown was designed for the Commercial Bank of Lake Erie
in Cleveland, Ohio. The bank opened for business in 1816 and weathered
a couple of rough periods before voluntarily closing in 1842. Draper,
Underwood, Bald & Spencer did the printing. Most of the design,
including the borders and end vignettes, are stock pieces.
It appears a lot of discussion occurred about the central
vignette. Based on the handwritten notations, a portrait of George
Washington, a steamship or a custom vignette of a view of Cleveland
were under consideration.
As you can tell from the second note, the steamboat design was
selected for the center vignette, and twin portraits of Benjamin
Franklin in the same style as the proposed portrait were used.
Wendell Wolka has been a paper money collector and educator for
more than 40 years. If you have questions or suggestions, you can
email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.