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A Blunder at the Treasury Department in 1864

Clark form  ce

A favorite kind of exographic items I have long sought have to do with U.S. government issues of all kinds- check forms, tax-related pieces, any sort of official paper. What you see here is a form to be issued by the Assistant Treasurer’s office in New York. It is a strikingly attractive piece with imprint “Engraved and Printed at the Treasury Department” and partially dated 186_. At left in the guilloche is the name of S. M. Clark, Disbursing Agent, Treasury Extension. I have never seen another example of this design, which I presume was developed by Clark himself as his name is so prominently displayed. The wording in the imprint indicates that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was not yet fully established.

Spencer Morton Clark (1811-1890), was the first Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, serving from 1862 to 1868. He was always working toward a distinct office within the Treasury Department for the production of currency and securities. He developed the Treasury Seal (appearing on this form) and favored facsimile signatures of responsible Treasury officials on paper money.

Clark 5c note

In 1864, Congress authorized the third issue of Fractional Currency that included denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50-cent notes. Clark was given the responsibility of production. No one knew until the notes appeared that Clark’s very own portrait graced the face of millions of newly printed 5-cent pieces!

How could Clark’s image have been chosen for such an honor? Two versions of the story are told. One was that the Clark who was presumably to be used was William Clark of early explorer fame. But it seems that such usage was never distinctly specified, so our Treasury man took it upon himself to insert his own likeness.

The second story is that the man meant to grace these notes was Comptroller of the Currency Freeman Clark. Nothing was ever followed through on this suggestion.

Congress was enraged over this incident; laws were passed, one retiring these 5c notes and another forbidding the use of a living person’s image on any future coin or currency. It took the personal intervention of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in order for Clark to keep his job.