This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Now that everyone has safely acquired their 50-state quarters, it might well be time to consider another collecting option when it comes to the original 13 states of the United States, but this time it might be worth considering items that were actually circulating at the time the Founding Fathers were building a nation.
It might be surprising to many, but a collection of the notes of the colonies that became the first 13 states is possible and when discussing historically important American notes it is really a collection without peer as such a collection is not possible with coins.
In some respects with all the interest in 50-state quarters and the attention given those first days of the nation, it is hard to understand why the notes of the period have received so little attention. In fairness, the notes of 1776 are very different from the Gold Certificates or Federal Reserve Notes seen in the 20th century, but as a collection of historical issues from the most important time in the nation's history certainly the notes of the Founding Fathers deserve a special place in the collection of virtually everyone with a love for American history. After all, it really does not get much better than a note printed by a business owned in part by Benjamin Franklin or a note signed by someone who also signed the Declaration of Independence, but they are possible and so are many others, making for a great collection or a truly spectacular display.
Tracing the history of the original paper issues of the colonies really requires that we go back to a time before the Revolutionary War. It was sometime in the late 17th century when the Western World began to experiment with non-metallic forms of money. Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, dates to 1668 and the Bank of England was founded in 1694. The right to issue paper money was the prized right for both.
North America, while not the birthplace for paper issues, had actually not been far behind as we know that in 1685 the Intendent of New France, which was located in what became Canada, had issued promissory notes on pieces of playing cards as a form of temporary money.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was not far behind with an issue to help to finance a border war with Canada and within a few years others were joining in the financial fun.
Actually the notion of having faraway colonies issuing their own money was not viewed as fun, but rather deadly serious business back in England. The laws under the British Crown gave the colonies very little room when it came to the production of coins or paper money. In fact, it was potentially very serious to get caught making coins or paper money without the proper approval and getting that approval could be a very slow process and one where the chance of success was not good, with the only likely reasons for approval being the periodic conflicts of the time and even then you had to be viewed by authorities as being the side they wanted to win.
Of course back in those days there were many in the colonies who were not exactly the best colonists they could be in the eyes of the authorities. Although it took until 1776 for things to really come to a head, the conflict between the colonies and the mother country was certainly showing signs of potential long before that as colonial authorities regularly engaged in the use of paper obligations to pay for a number of things. Using it was vital since at the time in many cases colonial governments barely had enough money to conduct routine affairs while the commerce of the day was seriously hampered by a lack of coins in most areas.
The period in the mid 1700s might well be described as a period of hide and seek when it came to the relationship of the colonies and the British Crown and Parliament.
In 1751, for example, New England was told to obey the laws limiting paper money and just to make sure they understood the directive Parliament passed a law aimed specifically at the activity in New England. The ink was probably barely dry when the French and Indian War broke out in 1756 and that quickly resulted in the middle and southern colonies producing their own new paper money not seen as covered by the law against New England.
Even when they tried to follow the wishes of the British Crown and Parliament there seemed to be problems in part simply because of the delay in getting approval for anything. That saw New York simply issue bills of credit, promissory notes and other issues without even bothering to consult anyone.
The number of issues also expanded and with it came counterfeiting as well. There were private issues and issues from places not generally seen as part of the original colonies such as the Northwest Territory or La Louisiane and such issues simply add to the already fascinating possibilities found in a collection.
Even if you simply stick to the first 13 states, there is great diversity and a number of fascinating issues from which to chose. Right at the top of any list would have to be notes which state clearly “Printed by B. Franklin” or “Printed by B. Franklin and D. Hall” as they were the products of the printing business of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Notes traced to the Franklin business were printed for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and in many cases the premiums for such historically interesting notes are small.
Other famous patriots got into the act as well. When he was not involved in other activities, Paul Revere apparently found time to be involved in the engraving and printing of notes for Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including a famous “Sword in Hand” issue of Dec. 7, 1775. That issue was noted for sometimes classic errors, so perhaps Revere was better at spotting invading British forces and horseback riding than he was at engraving and printing notes.
The designs are fascinating and reflect the work of the engravers and artists of the time. Elaborate vignettes on the notes of the South Carolina issue of Feb. 8, 1779, are the work of Thomas Coram while the nature prints found on many Maryland issues are credited to a Jonas Green.
There are also some interesting ties to the coins of the period such as Elisha Gallaudet who had added “E G FECIT” to the 1776 Continental dollar while also making head, arms and border cuts on the Feb. 16, 1771, New York issue and later Continental Currency issues. The March 25, 1776, New Jersey issue had borders engraved by David Rittenhouse, who a few years later would emerge as the first director of the United States Mint.
We know that the public was split on the idea of revolution, but everyone seemed to get into the act when it came to notes. A Henry Dawkins was involved in some official issues, but he was apparently also involved in counterfeiting. That is nothing if not versatile.
A James Smither of Philadelphia was believed to have done some border cuts on Pennsylvania issues of 1772-1776, but he was also accused by none other than Thomas Paine of counterfeiting while the Executive Council of Pennsylvania did even better by accusing him of being a traitor.
Simply put it was a perhaps slightly wild and uncertain time and the notes reflect that as they represent the work of great patriots and sometimes others of very questionable backgrounds giving virtually every note a special charm as a true relic of a time long ago.
One popular tie to the figures of the time can be found in the signatures as the notes were signed and sometimes signed by important figures of the day.
On the Declaration of Independence, for example, are found the signatures of a number of people whose very same signatures can also be found on notes of the time, including those of George Clymer, Francis Hopkinson and John Morton of Pennsylvania; Lyman Hall and George Walton of Georgia; Arthur Middleton of South Carolina, and Philip Livingston of New Jersey. Abraham Clark also of New Jersey was authorized but no notes are known bearing his signature.
There were also note signers who would sign the Constitution in 1787, including Charles Pinckney Jr. And Charles Cotesworth Pinckney along with John Rutledge, all of South Carolina; John Blair of Virginia; George Clymer and Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania; William Few of Georgia, and David Brearley of New Jersey. A number also signed Continental Currency during the Revolutionary War.
In attempting to put together a collection you will find that there can be significant differences in terms of the difficulty of some issues. What records we have in some cases do not seem reliable as the number of bills printed in some cases was probably not the number released. Generally speaking, upper denominations will be tougher while the lower denominations in many cases are likely to be more heavily worn.
There is a definite divide in terms of difficulty as well. The issues which became invalid prior to or during the Revolution are always tougher as they were frequently redeemed, leaving very few examples today. Later issues, however, in many cases became nearly worthless and consequently were not redeemed so they are much more available.
The wear patterns are also an interesting reflection of the times. The lower denominations received more wear as is natural, but the notes in some cases faced situations no note today encounters. Frequently people would write on them, but even worse was the common practice of actually tearing off pieces to make change. The practice was so common that Connecticut tried to first not accept such fragments, but later in 1735 it marked each section of new bills with the value of a one-quarter section. Is that so strange at a time when the Spanish 8 reales, a dollar-sized coin of the Spanish Empire, was cut into pieces to make change. The old term “bit,” refers to one-eighth of such a coin, which was achieved by cutting a coin in half, cutting the half in half to make a quarter piece called two bits and then cutting that quarter piece in half again.
No other colony seemed to go as far as Connecticut, but Rhode Island with a string of lower and lower denominations would seem to be responding to a similar situation.
The need for such low denominations was always high because of the nature of the colonial economy.
Most people were subsistence farmers, encountering very little cash money. A merchant who would purchase grain for resale after milling if he had the choice of paying with paper or coins would most likely opt for using the paper.
Why? Well, if he had any coins made of gold or silver, he very likely would have to send those to England to pay for the imported manufactured goods that he also would be selling to his customers.
With uneven sizes the Rhode Island bills seemed to almost encourage damage. That is why frequently the best condition examples really saw no circulation, but were rather unissued remainders at the end of hostilities. By contrast, the notes in circulation, which sometimes like early issues of New England were so large that they would not fit in a normal pocket or pouch, and as a result they were folded repeatedly and that would result in splitting and tearing.
It also must be remembered that it was a very different time. Most people worked with their hands usually in the fields and the roads if you could call them that were frequently muddy paths. Under the circumstances, taking great care with the condition of your notes was not a high priority. Actually some care was taken, but it would not cause much delight in the minds of collectors today. As a bill would split or tear there were frequently efforts made to save it by sewing or gluing some type of backing to the note. That does not help the grade today, but it does make each note a unique reminder of a very different day in America.
In fact, the notes are in some respects more interesting if they have had such a past. It is not unlike a Massachusetts sixpence that was bent at the time as the belief was that such a bent coin would help to drive off the local witches. This is not much of a problem nowadays when we would prefer coins to be nice and flat, but back at the time of issue the possibility of a witch lurking around every bend in the path was viewed as very real.
While not as available as coins that were not bent, the bent coin probably has a more fascinating history if it only could talk to us. That is very similar with the repaired notes as certainly a ragged note with a piece of cloth attached to the back may not be as valuable as an uncirculated example, but in some respects is as interesting.
The notes themselves also carry reminders that it was very different time. The plague of counterfeiting was clear as some carry phrases like, “To counterfeit is DEATH” or a similar warning. And the authorities weren’t kidding about the penalty, but that didn’t seem to stop the fakers.
The symbols and mottoes also reflected the times. European emblem books and Latin mottoes seemed to have had a great influence and it resulted in many interesting pieces.
There is, for example, a 1777 issue that carried the Latin motto “All servitude is wretched,” yet less than a century later it would be the very same South Carolina that would take the first steps toward Civil War in part over slavery.
North Carolina was busy with a range of slogans and images, including a $20 with the famous rattlesnake and “Don't tread on me.”
Benjamin Franklin also pitched in with “MIND YOUR BUSINESS,” which at the time had a positive connotation and was not the brush-off we think of it meaning now. New York had one note with 13 candles and the slogan, “With one and the same fire.”
The diversity is enormous and so is the fun when you attempt to assemble a set of the original 13 states. With so many options and interesting issues, however, the chances are excellent that you cannot stop at just 13. With reasonable prices, it is very possible that a note from each of the original states will be just the start of a larger and even more interesting collection.
No matter what your normal collecting pattern is, it is extremely difficult to not appreciate the enormous historical interest in the fascinating colonial issues and issues of the Revolution.