A Tangible Link To American History
By Todd R. Sciore
Ducats, Dough and Dead Presidents. The money in your wallet has been called many things but should “endangered species” now be one of them? The dollar, a name derived from the European Thaler, has survived for centuries; however, with the increasing usage of debit cards, electronic payment platforms and now virtual currencies, we stand on the precipice of becoming a cashless society. Should physical money go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker, we run the risk of severing a vital link to our past.
Money is more than a means of transacting business – it is a historical timeline. From Caesar to Churchill, if you want to find out who any country’s most beloved (or feared) leaders were, look no further than their currency. Money is a showcase for a nation’s artisans (an intricate engraving of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence graces the reverse of the lowly two-dollar bill), and through the use of symbolism and allegories, it is the embodiment of how it views itself and how it wishes to be seen by friend and foe alike. Referred to as “the hobby of kings” during the Renaissance, today there remains an active, well-heeled and scholarly group of numismatists always hunting for specimen coins and currency of historical significance, exceptional eye appeal and notable rarity.
Throughout America’s history, there have been numerous types of currency issued and, like fossils, each variety captures specific points in time for future generations to remember and study. The American Revolution, The Gold Rush and The “Bank Holiday” of 1933 are all eras represented by physical money. In our infancy, the various colonies issued their own currency and despite the generally primitive appearance, their charm lies hidden in fading signatures as occasionally the signers were patriots of great prominence. One such individual was Francis Hopkinson who signed a Pennsylvania colonial issue from 1771. In addition to his myriad of artistic accomplishments, he was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence giving currency with his signature a historical Americana “cool factor” you just won’t find in a Bitcoin.
One of the darkest periods in American history, The War Between The States, led to a hoarding of small change coins impeding the ability to conduct routine transactions like buying groceries. In turn, this resulted in a prolific issuance of tokens and scrip by enterprising merchants which remain amongst the most widely sought after and studied artifacts of the Civil War era. Despite their sometimes simplistic design and worn condition, with a little research, they can provide the curious and diligent with little tidbits about the signers such as Robert B. Leeds who was the first postmaster of Atlantic City, NJ.
1863 saw the birth of National Banks who issued their own currency until 1935 and, on a local level, are a special link to history. These notes remain popular as a portfolio of notes can be assembled in an unlimited number of ways – by unusual town names (First National Bank of Lone Wolf, Oklahoma) or places of historical interest (The Gettysburg National Bank) which are just two examples. In the case of Southern Florida, examples of notes from the five currency issuing National Banks in Palm Beach County are desirable, hard to come by rarities. As an added bonus, the reverse of the Series 1902 National Bank notes are amongst the most beautifully engraved images to ever adorn our nation’s currency.
Tangible money is also a dossier on a nation’s conflicts as military might is often featured in detailed vignettes such as the one found on the Series 1918 $2.00 Federal Reserve Bank Note affectionately known as a “battleship note.” As can be expected, great triumphs tend to be celebrated with artistic flair, rich in symbolism, while low points are of an understandably more muted design. One such low-key example is the World War II “emergency” Hawaii currency that was issued after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite the notes being of a relatively standard appearance with a generic overprint, they still conjure up emotional and catastrophic images of that fateful day.
As we continue to make technological advances, cash as we know it will most certainly be rendered obsolete, but the impersonal, speed of an electronic transaction can never emotionally replace the feeling of excitement, artistic merits or historical association of holding physical money in your hand. I am all for efficiency but is it the best practice for the future to board up the tunnels that connect us to our past?