By Peter Huntoon
June 14, 1934
The Honorable Secretary of the Treasury (Henry Morganthau Jr.)
My Dear Mr. Secretary:
Pursuant to the authority vested in me by the act approved May 12, 1933, as amended by the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, I hereby authorize and direct the issuance of silver certificates, pursuant to law, in any or all of the following denominations, $1, $5, $10, $20, and $100, against any and all silver bullion or standard silver dollars now in the Treasury not held for redemption of any outstanding silver certificates.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
And thus was born the Series of 1934 Silver Certificates, probably the most attractive series of small-size United States currency ever printed. The $1, $5 and $10 denominations nicely dress up your many collections, but fate would have it that they never got around to printing, let alone issuing, the fabulous $20s and $100s.
Look at the $100 shown here to see what we all missed.
Let’s look briefly at the two acts cited in Roosevelt’s letter in order to more fully appreciate these grand notes.
The 1933 act gave the president authority over the coinage of money in order to maintain parity of it with that of foreign currencies. A major feature of this legislation was that the president was given responsibility to regulate the value of the coinage, specifically, the weight of a gold dollar.
Among the lesser provisions in the act was the following:
“The President is authorized, for a period of six months from the date of the passage of this Act, to accept silver in payment of the whole or any part of the principal or interest now due, or to become due within six months after such date, from any foreign government or governments on account of any indebtedness to the United States, such silver to be accepted at not to exceed the price of 50 cents an ounce in United State currency. The aggregate value of the silver accepted under this section shall not exceed $200,000,000.
“The Secretary of the Treasury shall cause silver certificates to be issued in such denominations as he deems advisable to the total number of dollars for which such silver was accepted in payment of debts. Such silver certificates shall be used by the Treasurer of the United States in payment of any obligations of the United States.”
This piece of legislation passed May 12, 1933, and was part of a major bill called the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The single most important provision in the act was that it gave the president authority to set the price of gold and silver.
One of the lesser provisions, the passage cited above, was called the Thomas Amendment, and was designed to inflate the money supply with new Silver Certificates. Elmer Thomas, who sponsored the amendment, was a New Deal senator from Oklahoma who was a fervent subscriber to the populist notion that inflation was good for the farmer because it would put cash into his pocket.
The Thomas amendment was an ingenious plan to allow World War I debtor nations to pay off their debts in silver priced at 50 cents per ounce, and repatriate that money into our economy when it was urgently needed.
The issuance of the Series of 1933 $10 Silver Certificates, which are so rare today, were the direct consequence of this law. Notice that the Treasury had only six months to receive the foreign silver payments, and thus turn them into reserves to back the Series of 1933 notes. (See Huntoon, 2010, for a thorough discussion of the Thomas amendment and the Series of 1933 notes.)
The 1934 act is far better known to numismatists, it being the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, which ceded ownership of most of the gold stocks in the country to the U.S. Treasury, and outlawed the private possession of all but a token amount of gold and gold coins.
It also gave the president authority to reduce the weight of the gold dollar, and the weight of the silver dollar in the same percentage.
Important for this discussion was this provision:
“The President is further authorized to issue silver certificates in such denominations as he may prescribe against any silver bullion, silver, or standard silver dollars in the Treasury not then held for redemption of any outstanding silver certificates, and to coin standard silver dollars or subsidiary currency for the redemption of such silver certificates.”
What, of course, they were doing was monetizing their unobligated silver stocks at an inflated dollar value, and pumping that newly created money into the cash starved depression economy. The result was the Series of 1934 Silver Certificates.
The difference between the Series of 1934 and the earlier 1928 and 1933 series was that many of the notes were backed by bullion instead of silver dollars, consequently the obligations on them changed from payable in coin to a revised “in silver payable on demand.” In the final analysis, the last people in line received silver granules or bars rather than silver dollars during the great Silver Certificate redemption run in 1968, before the Treasury shut off silver redemptions on June 24.
The Silver Purchase Act, an act requested by Roosevelt, was passed on June 19, five days after Roosevelt authorized the Series of 1934 Silver Certificates. It directed the Treasury secretary to purchase silver at home or abroad “whenever and so long as the proportion of silver in the stocks of gold and silver of the United States is less than one-quarter of the monetary value of such stocks” and “such certificates shall be placed in actual circulation.” Of course, the objective of this act was to support the price of silver, which was faltering, a subsidy to domestic producers, and to further inflate the currency supply.
In 1934, the public already was used to Silver Certificates, because they had been in circulation since 1878, and circulated without resistance. The idea that coins represented a value denominated in silver already was well entrenched in the public mind, so more silver in the form of Series of 1934 notes did not appear to pose much of a hurdle.
The future revealed that small-denomination Silver Certificates, mostly $1s and $5s, would do the heavy lifting in terms of meeting the needs of small denomination notes for the next 29 years.
Initially, $20 and $100 Silver Certificates were in the works. The fact is that standard 12-subject production plates were made for both in 1934. The idea of issuing $20s persisted, so some new plates were added to the inventory in 1936, and even 1942. In fact, the last three plates made in 1942 were Series of 1934A. The 1934As were distinguished by having macro-size plate serial numbers.
Notice from the data below that $20 plate 16, a plate with a micro plate serial number, was completed in 1942, thus qualifying as a late-finished plate similar to 1934A late-finished Silver Certificate $5 face 307 and $10 faces 86 and 87.
The Series of 1934 $20 and $100 plates proved to be a wasted effort. The primary reason that they were not used was that the Treasury and Federal Reserve redemption agencies did not want to incur the added cost to separate them as they came in for redemption. Instead Federal Reserve Notes were allowed to fulfill the higher denomination demand, and the higher denomination silvers were never printed.
A list of all the $20 and $100 plates follows, along with the dates when they were certified.
$20 SC faces 1-14 and 16 were reentered on Feb. 17, 1938, and recertified between Sept. 10 and 15, 1942. The nature of this work is unknown, but probably consisted of adding more modern guide markings in the margins to facilitate processing. The designs of the notes were not altered. Clearly they had not been written off as late as 1942. All the $20 plates, except 17 and 24, were canceled Nov. 20, 1951. Plate 17 was saved.
Similarly, the $100s were reentered on Feb. 17, 1938, but never recertified. Plates 1 through 3 were canceled on Nov. 20, 1951, and 4 was saved.
$20 Series of 1934
Serial Plate Certification
No. No. Date
1 129775 Sep 26, 1934
2 129776 Mar 25, 1936
3 129777 Mar 30, 1936
4 129778 Mar 31, 1936
5 129910 Sep 18, 1934
6 129925 Sep 20, 1934
7 129926 Oct 1, 1934
8 129944 Sep 25, 1934
9 129945 Sep 26, 1934
10 129946 Sep 24, 1934
11 129947 Sep 27, 1934
12 129963 Oct 2, 1934
13 129964 Oct 2, 1934
14 129971 Sep 28, 1934
15 129972 Oct 1, 1934
16 129973 Sep 10, 1942
17 129974 Oct 3, 1934
$20 Series of 1934A
18 138087 Sep 14, 1942
19 138088 Sep 14, 1942
20 138134 Oct 19, 1942
$100 Series of 1934
1 130131 Oct 29 1934
2 130132 Oct 31, 1934
3 130133 Nov 1, 1934
4 130134 Oct 31, 1934
Ron Horstman provided a copy of Roosevelt’s letter to Morganthau, and opened a discussion with me about the distinction between the Series of 1933 and 1934 Silver Certificates. James Hughes, then curator, National Numismatic Collection, Division of Numismatics, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution provided access to the certified proofs illustrated here. The Society of Paper Money Collectors sponsored the research.
Sources of Data
Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 1863-1985, Certified proofs: National Numismatic Collection, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing, undated, Plate history ledgers for small size silver certificates: Record Group 318, U. S. National Archives, College Park, Md.
Huntoon, Peter, Mar-Apr 2010, “Creation of money during the Great Depression, the greatest tectonic shift in Federal Currency in U. S. History”: Paper Money, v. 49, p. 90B120.
Secretary of the Treasury, 1934, “Annual report of the Secretary of the Treasury”: U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
United States Statutes, Acts of May 12, 1933 and January 30, 1934: U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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