By Peter Huntoon
U.S. small-size note collectors have long recognized that the seal colors changed during the 1934 Series of Federal Reserve Notes, which were current from 1934 until 1950. The color progression was vivid yellow-green to vivid blue-green to dull blue-green. We have been chipping away at pinpointing when the changes in these colors occurred. The purpose of this article is to document the state of our quest at this point.
The problem with serial number data
A time-honored approach in an endeavor like this is for collectors to record the serial numbers from varieties of interest, then go to serial number registers compiled by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to determine when they were printed. However, this approach largely breaks down when it comes to the 1928 and 1934 Series Federal Reserve Notes because the serial number registers do not appear to have been saved. Some fragmentary records exist that help us though, and they comprise the basis for the findings presented here.
The partial records that proved to be invaluable reside in the BEP Historical Resource Center. The best is a record of every Series of 1934 FRN star note printing from the first printing for the series on Oct. 15, 1934 through Aug. 31, 1939. There also is a record of the first serial numbers printed each year for each of the small-size notes from 1928 to 1952. Although not comprehensive, these records are certainly better than nothing.
Various FRN collectors, such as James Hodgson, have accurately recorded not only serials but also seal colors. Such records when combined with the published census data in the Schwartz-Lindquist catalog and its predecessors allow us to deduce the big picture.
This seal color business is not a cut and dried proposition. The issue is that one day the BEP ink makers didn’t abruptly change the ink formulas and a new color suddenly appeared. Rather the colors grade from one to the other over a short period, which causes consternation, especially among males who have classic red/green color blindness. Often they simply can’t distinguish between the subtle shades, even under good light, to make an accurate call.
Chuck O’Donnell was affected, as is coauthor Huntoon. The result is that O’Donnell’s calls as he attempted to map out the ranges of the use of particular seals are notoriously unreliable. He preferred to subdivide the 1934 FRNs into light and dark green seals, but to him the early vivid yellow-green seals were dark because he was confusing intensity with color, exactly the opposite of normal perceptions. The chain of small-size catalogs that he was involved with thus got off to a rocky start because collectors reporting their finds tended to call the vivid yellow green seals light and the dull blue green seals dark when they fed him their data. The compilation got all mixed up as a result. We finally cleaned the light/dark green seal nomenclature out of the small-size catalog a few editions ago.
Let us make clear what we mean by our color divisions.
The earliest color that appeared on the 1934 FRNs was what is now called vivid yellow-green. These are far and away the most aesthetically pleasing of the 1934 FRNs and have been avidly collected as a group forever. The key adjective here is yellow. When you have a true vivid yellow-green seal note, you cannot detect even a hint of blue in the seal or serial numbers.
Gradually the ink makers began to inject more blue into their mixes and what we are calling the vivid blue-green seals started to appear. The giveaway with them is that you can detect subtle blue hews in the earliest examples, and the blues became stronger within a short time until there was no ambiguity that the colors were blue-green.
We draw the line before the first hint of blue in the seals.
The vivid blue-green seals have a vibrancy that is unmistakable in comparison to the dull blue-green seals that followed. Many examples, particularly circulated specimens, have a greasy or oily sheen. This may not be a function of the ink, but rather a difference in the sizing applied to the paper to increase its durability during the period when most of the vivid blue-green seal were being produced.
The dull blue-green seals are just that. The vibrancy is gone and the seals and serials have a flat appearance. The earliest of the dull blue-green seals are quite bright. Gradually they took on a steelier cast and by the beginning of World War II became standardized to the color that closed out the remaining dozen years of the series.
The takeaway here is that the changeovers between these seal colors was not abrupt, but rather somewhat transitional. When you find a note from the changeover periods you may tear your hair out attempting to classify it. It is best in such instances to lay all your notes out under strong sunlight and push the new piece one way or the other once you are able to compare it to your unambiguous specimens that will serve to ground you.
You males might be wise to enlist the aid of your wife or girlfriend because they are less likely to carry classic male red/green color blindness. If you have it, chances are you don’t even know it. Sure you see color, but it just isn’t the color the non-afflicted see.
Vivid yellow-green to vivid blue-green seal changeover
In order to make the temporal cut between the vivid yellow-green and vivid blue-green seals we arranged all the 1934 series star note printings in chronological order. Then we scoured the catalogs, censes, various photo archives and our collections for notes to classify and peg against our list of star printings. We quickly honed the changeover to two consecutive batches of star note printings; respectively those on Nov. 2 and Dec. 6, 1937. Hodgson’s census had three hits from Nov. 2 and O’Donnell had one from Dec. 6. We considered Hodgson’s to be reliable, but O’Donnell’s was suspect.
Now what we had to do was either find the note that had been observed or reported to O’Donnell or find another one from the Dec. 6 batch. After more than a year of searching Yakes found and purchased a virgin from the Dec. 6 batch, the note with serial A00305550* that highlights this article. We passed it around at the 2015 Memphis show and Yakes, Hodgson and Huntoon agreed that it was a blue-green seal, because there are no questions that its seal and serials contain a distinct blue hew unlike the vivid yellow-greens. We hope that color comes through in the reproduction that accompanies this article.
The changeover from vivid yellow-green to vivid blue-green seals is now fixed between Nov. 2 and Dec. 6, 1937. Yes, there were regular FRNs being printed during that interval so theoretically the date range could be tightened, but we have no idea what those printings were. What we are giving you is that if you have one or the other of these seal colors, you have as good an idea as we can come up as to which side of the time divide it came from.
Known vivid yellow-green seal high serials
Table 1 is a listing of high serials for the vivid yellow-green seals that we know for certain in the Series of 1934. The star notes were those numbered on or before Nov. 2, 1937.
The $5 non-star cuts result from the fact that there was a hiatus in the production of $5 FRNs. Specifically, no $5 FRN plates were on the face presses between May 19, 1937 and July 11, 1941 because $5 production was given over to $5 Silver Certificates during that period. The hiatus lasted a little over four years and conveniently bridged the seal color changeovers. Consequently the first $5 serials numbered after July 11, 1941 are the first serials printed after the vivid yellow-green seals.
Vivid blue-green to dull blue-green seal changeover
The timing of the changeover from vivid blue-green to dull blue-green remains somewhat ambiguous because our star note record ceases with Aug. 31, 1939 printings and a reported note from that date is vivid blue-green seal. By the beginning of 1940 the seals were dull blue-green. Obviously, the changeover occurred between Aug. 31 and Dec. 31, 1939.
Although our knowledge of the timing of the vivid to dull blue-green changeover may not be as satisfying as we desire, at least we know that the vivid blue-green seals were restricted to the period between about Dec. 6, 1937 and late-1939, which certainly is more than we knew before.
Seal colors aren’t the only colors that changed on our early small notes. The earliest small notes had distinctive soft looking yellow-green backs that also are particularly attractive. This yielded to forest-green backs and then to steely blue-green backs. Those changeovers also were transitional. We can time them on the basis of the certification dates on $1 Silver Certificate backs in the BEP proof holdings of the National Numismatic Collection.
Huntoon picked the change from yellow-green to the onset of forest-green as Oct. 7, 1940. That also is a useful date, but be wary because Huntoon has male red/green color blindness.
Sources of data
Bureau of Engraving and Printing, undated, Star note serial number ledger showing the dates when Series of 1934 star notes were numbered inclusive of Oct. 15, 1934 and Aug. 31, 1939: Bureau of Engraving and Printing Historical Resource Center, Washington, D.C.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing O & M Secretary, April 1952, First serial numbers printed during each year on United States small size notes from 1928 to 1952: Bureau of Engraving and Printing Historical Resource Center, Washington, D.C.
Schwartz, John, and Lindquist, Scott, 2011, Standard Guide to Small-Size U. S. Paper Money 1928 to Date, 10th edition: Krause Publications, Iola, Wis., p. 382.
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