The history of paper currency in the United States is rich and diverse, reflecting the distinctive political and economic development of the country. From the first paper bill issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690 to the anti-counterfeiting design changes introduced in 1996, American paper money has witnessed a multitude of changes. A particularly exciting period of monetary transformation was the Era of Free Banking in the early to mid-19th century. This period saw the production of paper money from varied sources such as states, cities, municipalities and private industries like restaurants, churches and insurance companies. After the charter of the Second US Central Bank expired in 1836, the country was left without a formal central bank, creating a vacuum that would be filled by private banks and insurance companies.
The Davis library at St. John’s University holds a collection of currency consisting of nonfederal notes issued by insurance companies during the 19th century. These notes are referred to as obsolete currency because circulation stopped during the Civil War. The collection features currency with intricately designed engravings, colorful typeface and notes printed on patterned paper. The engravings and symbols on the currency and the paper it was printed on are illustrative of the times, revealing the ways in which people viewed themselves and their country as well as the methods used to deal with shortages in supplies. Below are examples of privately issued paper money printed by insurance companies in the 19th century, both of which are available for viewing at the SJU Davis Library.
This intricately engraved currency was issued by the Adrian Insurance Company in the 1800s. The document displays vignettes of agricultural workers (center), a Native American warrior with rifle (left) and a dog guarding a safe (lower right). This item is hand signed by the Company’s President and Cashier and is over 100 years old.
This fifty-cent 1862 note of deposit was issued by the Greensboro Mutual Life Insurance Company. The document displays black and red inks on paper printed in green with an ivy-like pattern, black “50” inside simple oval (top left), “50” in red (top right) and “50 CENTS” in red (center), a small standing female figure (left end) and an image of a one-candle chandelier (bottom right). The faded signature of the company’s treasurer, Dr. David P. Weir, is also displayed at the bottom right of the note.
Even in the early stages of the war, the printers of governmental currencies often found it difficult to locate or maintain adequate supplies of paper. Such shortages made it necessary to recycle paper or to use wallpapers and other types of paper not intended for printing money. Reportedly, the patterned paper on this Greensboro Mutual Life Insurance Company note is a type that craftsmen used to line the drawers in furniture or to paste inside keepsake boxes and other containers.