1927 letter changed the faces on future U.S. small-size notes
- Published: Jun 21, 2021, 8 AM
A June 3 Washington Post article by reporter Annie Lindsey on the delays with a Harriet Tubman $20 note concluded with a reference to research done by Ruth Anne Robbins, a law professor at Rutgers University. Robbins had written a paper on the difficulty of making changes to U.S. paper currency.
As part of her research, she found a letter dated Oct. 28, 1927, in the National Archives that was described as a memo to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon from his staff, suggesting subjects for the soon to be introduced small-size United States paper currency.
The proposals for $1, $2, $5, $10, $50, $500, $5,000, and $10,000 bills were exactly what was on the notes when they were first issued on July 10, 1929. The other denominations have handwritten changes in pencil. Originally, the $20 note was to have Grover Cleveland’s portrait on the face. That is crossed out and replaced with a hand-written notation ordering Andrew Jackson to be depicted on the $20 denomination. Jackson’s name is crossed out on the $1,000 note and replaced with that of Cleveland.
There was only one change to the backs of the notes. On the $100 note, “Independence Hall” is written in and “Bureau of Engraving and Printing” is crossed out.
Dr. Franklin Noll, former historian for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, has seen public records that provide greater insight both into this particular memorandum and into the history of the development of small-size notes in general.
The memo itself came from BEP Director Alvin W. Hall, who served in that position from 1924 to 1954. Hall sent it to an assistant secretary, who gave it to Mellon. The handwritten notations, as reported, are Mellon’s.
Considering that the first small-size notes are Series 1928 issues, while the late 1927 memo was almost last minute, the move to smaller size notes, Noll says, was not. The idea began in the days before World War I, with concepts that were kicked from one Treasury secretary to the next but not further acted upon until the Mellon years.
In 1916, the short-lived Bureau of Efficiency was founded. It was the executive branch’s first staff agency and, says Mordecai Lee in Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency: The U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, 1916–1933, it was tasked with bringing the principles of scientific management to the federal government.
One of its employees was Hall. The young accountant became an investigator for the bureau in 1920 and in 1922 was assigned to a committee established by Mellon to evaluate the operations of the BEP. One thing led to another. He was appointed as head of the BEP’s planning unit and became director in 1924 at the age of 36.
As for the new money, there were many meetings and many ideas that Noll characterizes as rooted in a logical approach. At first that included (1) the most famous persons should be on the lower denominations so they would be recognized instantly; (2) they should be presidents, if possible; and (3) if the denominations were lined up side-by-side, the portraits should appear significantly different. For instance, portraits facing left, right, and forward; beards and no beards; and attire from different eras.
The original proposal from the Bureau of Efficiency called for George Washington to appear on the $1 notes, Woodrow Wilson on the $2 denomination, and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln on other lower denominations. Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, was to be on one of the higher denominations. It didn’t work out that way.
Mellon had other factors to consider, perhaps also in the name of efficiency. One of the important ones was that the BEP was then printing large-size Series 1914 Federal Reserve notes and had all the plates. The feeling was that instead of reinventing the wheel, why not just use most of those portraits when possible? Jackson was moved from the $10 notes to the $20 notes; Cleveland from the $20 to the $1,000 notes; and Hamilton from the $1,000 denomination to the $10 denomination. The new Benjamin Franklin portrait, based on a painting by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, fit in better with the style of the other notes than the one on the large-size $100 notes. There was also a sense at the time that three-quarters-facing portraits were harder to copy than profiles.
A bust of President Wilson replaced Chief Justice John Marshall on the $500 notes. The busts of Washington and Jefferson were from the existing $1 and $2 United States notes.
As for the vignette of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing building suggested for the $100 denomination, it wasn’t an ego trip by Hall. Benjamin Franklin was, after all, a printer.
There is no record of why Mellon made the changes on the memo.
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