By Peter Huntoon
There were only two banks in the entire country for which Series of 1882 plates were made that carried a letter Z plate position letter.
They were The National Shawmet Bank of Boston, charter 5155, and The National Bank of Commerce in St. Louis, charter 4178. The Zs for both were on Series of 1882 Date Back plates. The Boston was a 10-10-10-10 lettered W-X-Y-Z and the St. Louis a 10-10-10-20 lettered X-Y-Z-F.
It gets better, though. Of these two, only the plate for Boston was actually used.
Now if that’s not enough, you can’t top this. The note shown is the only specimen from the Z position from Boston that is recorded in the National Currency Foundation census.
I have known about it for some time from the census, but there was no photo of it in the census.
It finally cycled back to Tom Denly, who has a terrific eye for the unusual and a memory for the exotic. He knew it would ring my chimes so he whipped off this image to me.
It took a big circulation for a bank to go through enough plates to reach Z, but there were plenty that qualified. The fact is that the vast majority never got to use a Z owing to a quirk in the plate-lettering scheme. This is what makes the Shawmet bank and this note so special. This is worth figuring out.
Plate letters always were used on National Bank Note faces to differentiate between the subjects of the same denomination on a given plate. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing established a protocol for advancing the plate letters sequentially to successive plates in 1878. Here were the rules:
1. There was an independent lettering sequence for each denomination;
2. The lettering began at A for each denomination with the start of each new series for each bank;
3. Lettering for a given denomination advanced sequentially down the plate, and then from plate to plate in the order in which the plates were made;
4. Plate letters reverted to A when new plates were made when: (a) the bank title was changed as the result of a formal petition from the bankers and/or (b) the bank assumed an earlier charter number;
5. Plate letters were not changed on altered plates including: (a) Original Series to Series of 1875 conversions, (b) changed manufacturer imprints, (c) territorial to state conversions, (d) addition of engraved signatures, (e) defacto title changes imposed by the comptroller’s clerks, or (f) title changes limited to the removal of the word “The”;
6. Plate letters were advanced on existing Series of 1882 and Series of 1902 plates when they were altered to the “or other securities” variety with the introduction of the date back types in 1908.
The important fact here is that each denomination used by a bank had its own lettering sequence. In situations where a given denomination appeared on different plate combinations in the same series, the letters for that denomination walked sequentially through all the plates in the order in which the plates were made.
Let’s look at the letters assign to a succession of 10-10-10-20 plates for a big city bank.
1st 10-10-10-20 A-B-C-A
2nd 10-10-10-20 D-E-F-B
3rd 10-10-10-20 G-H-I-C
4th 10-10-10-20 J-K-L-D
5th 10-10-10-20 M-N-O-E
6th 10-10-10-20 P-Q-R-F
7th 10-10-10-20 S-T-U-G
8th 10-10-10-20 V-W-X-H
9th 10-10-10-20 AA-BB-CC-I
Whoa, what’s the story with the ninth plate? Where are the letters Y and Z? Why doesn’t the 9th plate carry letters Y-Z-AA-I?
The answer is that they didn’t want mixed-looking plate letters on the same denomination on the same plate. Consequently, they skipped Y and Z and went directly to AA-BB-CC for the $10s.
OK, that’s all well and good, so how could the Shawmet bank get a Z-plate?
The answer is that the bank was using a mix of 10-10-10-10 and 10-10-10-20 plates. See Table 1 for exactly how they got to both Y and Z on their $10s. Pretty neat, eh?
The same thing occurred in the Series of 1902, but with somewhat greater frequency. The following charters received Y and Z plate letters on some of their 1902 series $10s:
CT Hartford 121
NY New York 733, 891, 1290, 1370
PA Wilkes Barre 104
VA Richmond 1111
The Y and Z positions for the National Bank of Commerce in New York, charter 733, landed on some Red Seals and the bank even got YY on some date backs. All the rest of the banks got them on either their 1902 Blue Seal date or Plain Backs.
It turns out that Y and Z never were used on any denomination other that $10s. Y and Z always were skipped in long successions of 5-5-5-5 plates.
The $50 and higher denominations theoretically could have reached Y and Z but never did because none of the banks needed that many high denomination plates.
The toughie, though, is the Series of 1882.
The pictured Boston is from the only possible bank with such a plate and only known example.