Engravers' art is more than just a pretty face

Paper, ink and steel are the basic components used to produce the paper notes in our wallets.

Unfortunately today’s Federal Reserve note designs are so well known to most people that it seems no one spares a moment to really “see” the designs.

But there’s one type of cash even non-collectors cannot help but see: the Series 1869 Legal Tender (United States) notes, best known by their nickname: rainbow notes.

(Be honest, when you read that phrase could you almost hear Judy Garland singing the song Over the Rainbow from the 1939 motion picture The Wizard of Oz?)

Unlike the fantasy place called Oz, rainbow notes are very real and very rare in higher grades. 

Long before the U.S. Treasury issued the first series of Federal Reserve notes featuring subtle background colors in the fall of 2003, Americans were introduced to nine denominations of Series 1869 Legal Tender notes. These notes are nicknamed “rainbow notes” because of the use of red, green, blue and black inks used to print the notes.

One of the most charming designs can be found on the $2 notes of this series and type. These large-size notes offer a great canvas to display a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the left side of the face of the note accompanied by a vignette of the U.S. Capitol in the center of the note. A large, decorative red seal of the Treasury department is on the far right side of the face.

The back of the notes pay homage to the engraver’s art with five large components – each displaying guilloche - a geometrical lathework technique that repeats intricate, decorative patterns. The designs are similar to what could be made with a 1960s-era Spirograph drawing toy. 

There are three references to the denomination on the back – the Roman numeral two, the Arabic numeral for two and the word itself, “two.” In between each intricate design feature are two panels. The first explains the penalty of counterfeiting or passing a counterfeit. The other contains the redemption clause.

There were 25,255,960 of these Series 1869 $2 notes issued. On April 25, 2014 Heritage Auctions sold four such notes in various grades. 

A Paper Money Guaranty Choice Uncirculated 64 Exceptional Paper Quality example sold for $11,162.50. The auction house noted that this type of note is common in low grade, “but far scarcer at Choice and above level.”

Another Series 1869 $2 Legal Tender note, graded PCGS Currency Very Choice New 64, sold for $8,225.

A Very Fine 20 PMG graded note sold for $851.88.

The fourth example, graded by PCGS as Apparent Very Fine 20 for small edge tears and a replaced corner, sold for $705.

So, depending on the depth of your pockets, you can select a colorful American note authorized for issuance more than 140 years ago.