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Why Our Most Ambitious Paper Currency Never Lasted

In 1896, the United States Treasury produced silver certificates. Many believe these notes to be the most beautiful paper currency in U.S. history. These certificates debuted to the delight of art lovers and numismatists alike. Commonly dubbed educational currency, these notes were short-lived. Battles between artists — and between puritanical and artistic ideals — were responsible for the notes’ demise. Despite the drama, they left a lasting impression. In the almost 120 years since, no one has created any U.S. paper currency that compares in beauty or complexity.

There were three denominations for the series’ first release that year: $1, $2 and $5.
Those three silver certificates were supposed to be the beginning of a long-lived series. There were six more notes planned. Silver notes in the amounts of $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000 were in the works. Illustrations for the $10 and $50 notes were never finished when the project was replaced by another series in 1899. But why would anyone halt production on such stunning notes? There are a few reasons.

The chief of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Claude M. Johnson, called for new currency. After the project had already been started, the BEP asked a new group of artists to contribute to the currency-creation process. Conflicts arose. As is often the case with cooperative artistic productions, not everyone’s vision was aligned, and jealousy arose. This caused production to move incredibly slowly. Still, with all the feuding between artists, another controversy became even bigger.

It was the $5 certificate, known to collectors as the “$5 Ed.” The front of the bill features an angel with her arms outstretched, and her breast exposed. This was enough to upset some high-society ladies in Boston. They made a big enough stink to get the bill banned by bankers there. Purportedly, this incident is where the term “banned in Boston” originated. The note is pretty tame by today’s standards. Though that said, no currency featuring a naked woman has been produced since.

Each piece of educational currency conveys a message through the artwork on the note. The $1 note titled “History Instructing Youth,” displays the goddess History, pointing over the Potomac River to Washington, D.C., while a young child looks at the capital city. The title of this note is where the certificates got the name educational currency. The $2 bill’s theme — “Science Presents Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture” — was illustrated with a scientist showing steam and electricity to two noble women. The aforementioned $5 Ed’s theme was “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World.” The controversial angel has her arms outstretched over the capitol, holding a lightening bolt. It’s amazing how prophetic the $5 Ed’s theme was when looking at our digital world powered by electricity.

Want to hear about rare paper currency in person? Come into Bellevue Rare Coins. We’ll tell you all about it.

Bellevue Rare Coins specializes in gold buying and dealing in rare coins. We are a family-owned business located in Bellevue and Lynnwood. We also buy and sell silver, diamonds, currency and jewelry. Visit us for a free evaluation.

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  • Bellevue


    321 Bellevue Way NE
    Bellevue, WA 98004
    Hours: Mon-Fri 10 am - 6 pm
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    Phone: 425-454-1283
  • Lynnwood


    18411 Alderwood Mall Parkway Suite F
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    Issaquah, WA 98027
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    Phone: 425-392-0450
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    Tacoma, WA 98402
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    Phone: 253-328-4014