Currency used to define American identity before 1900
- Published: Jul 5, 2021, 8 AM
A feature article by historian Peter Y.W. Lee posted on June 11 at smithsonianmag.com reaches back 125 years to point out that the proposed Harriet Tubman note is not the first use of currency to define American national identity. A prior example is the Educational Series of 1896, which may be both the most popular with collectors and one of the most disappointing series as far as its intended use in circulating as money.
Lee recounts that the United States of the 1890s was changing from an agrarian economy to an urban industrial one. Parallel to this was the conflict between mainly rural free silver proponents, who favored unlimited coinage of silver, or poor man’s money, and the mainly urban interests supporting the gold standard. The “Gold Bugs” felt threatened by how an increase in the money supply would affect their institutions and fortunes.
The silver certificates of 1896 were an attempt at national unity in those changing times. Lee says that, with the support of Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle, an adherent of gold, the Chief of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Claude M. Johnson, authorized the “prestigious, artistic, ‘educational’ series of silver certificates as a form of celebratory nationalism.”
Three well-known muralists were commissioned to design the notes. One of them, William H. Low, said in 1893 that the notes “would, from an artistic standpoint, be commencing at the very root to put a work of art in the hands of every man who buys a loaf of bread.”
For the $1 note, Low interpreted the Constitution as a civics lesson for children. The design, History Instructing Youth, is also said to be symbolic of the child-saving movement, a juvenile justice reform movement, in which white, middle-class philanthropists took immigrant and lower-class children and turned them into productive workers and good citizens.
There was another, subliminal message, according to Lee, in which youth is the instructor. He cites how the theme of youth and citizenship illustrated the free silver position, with the example of Coin’s Financial School. This was an 1894 pamphlet written by William Hope Harvey that supported returning to bimetallism. It told the story of a child financier named Coin, who viewed silver as democratic and gold as aristocratic — money of the people versus money of the rich. In the pamphlet, Coin succeeds in convincing gold bugs of the merits of silver.
The Series 1896 $2 and $5 silver certificates demonstrated technology and national progress. Edwin Blashfield’s Science Presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture on the $2 denomination paid tribute to industrialization. “Steam” and “Electricity” are shown as children with “Commerce” and “Manufacture” shown as adults. Walter Shirlaw’s “America” on the $5 note was an ode to American success overseas. The allegory of “America” holds Thomas Edison’s light bulb, “enlightening” the world.
The series did not have its desired effect. There were protests about the designs, such as the partial nudity on the $5 silver certificate. Gold proponents did not change and still viewed free silver as a two-sided plot to take over the economy and devalue American workers and money. From the east, the issue was with immigrants and foreign silver miners; in the west, it was from “uneducated Westerners,” who were “easily misled, while urban (presumably Eastern) sophisticates knew better.”
Another problem, as collectors know, is that, as currency, the Educational Series was not very good. Especially when they got dirty, the denominations were difficult to differentiate for counting, and their appearance, particularly when soiled, encouraged counterfeiting. Future designs would have bigger numbers and more blank spaces.
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