Paper Money

It’s in the fine print: Collecting Paper

Taking a closer look at the fine print on obsolete bank notes can reveal a hidden history, as with the $5 note from the Lafayette Bank, which shows Alger’s Iron Foundry in South Boston.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

You find all sorts of things in the fine print on obsolete bank notes and scrip; sometimes it’s the actual location or the complete name of the issuer that puts a whole different light on the note’s acceptance. 

A note whose text says, for example, PAYABLE AT MY OFFICE ON in very small letters and THE CANAL BANK in much larger letters could lead someone not paying close attention to the conclusion that the note was issued by “The Canal Bank” rather than by someone whose office happened to be physically located on one of the earthen banks of a canal. The old adage “Never trust a bank note issuer that resorts to font size to assist in the acceptance or circulation of its notes” certainly applies. 

But not all fine print was intended to deceive. Many vignettes are “signed” by the original engravers. Numerous vignettes from Hatch, Rawdon, Durand and others can be found with microprinting under them indicating that they were designed, drawn, or engraved by a named engraver. In the mid-1850s and later, a number of vignettes had lengthy microprinted notices that they had been entered with a District Court, apparently a form of copyrighting the image. 

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A few vignettes have microprinted titles identifying their subjects. One such vignette can be found on a $5 issue of the Lafayette Bank of Boston. At first glance, the vignette appears to be a stock industrial scene, but a closer inspection reveals the following title: “Alger’s Iron Foundry South Boston.”

Custom vignettes were not inexpensive to commission, but bankers occasionally spent the additional dollars. Why the Lafayette Bank opted for this course of action is unclear. It is possible that the foundry or its owner was a major stockholder in, or customer of the bank. A less likely motivation may have been to show the industrial might of the area that the bank serviced. 

So what was Alger’s Iron Foundry all about?

Founded by Cyrus Alger (1781 to 1856) in 1809, the iron works in South Boston was a major munitions producer, supplying the United States government with cannon balls during the War of 1812. He was an excellent metallurgist and soon branched out into the production of artillery pieces such as mortars and rifled cannons as well as other castings for diverse products. 

After his death, the company reverted to the manufacture of wire. Alger was also a public figure, serving on Boston’s Common Council as well as two terms as an alderman.

So you never know what may be lurking in the shadows on obsolete notes. Take a closer look at the ones in your collection and see if any surprise is waiting for you.

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