Money can reveal a wealth of information about the culture that used it. Coins and bills serve as small, colorful windows into the past, making history every time they are exchanged as legal tender. Changes in currency reflect social change, as demonstrated by the United States’ recent decision to boot Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill in favor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
The Historic New Orleans Collection has more than 200 old notes and coins on display for its “Money! Money! Money!” exhibit in the Williams Research Center at 410 Chartres St. The free exhibit, running through Oct. 29, includes an interactive bingo-style dollar hunt. And, a staff member is available to help inquisitive visitors navigate the impressive collection.
The collection includes both purchases and donations to the Historic New Orleans Collection, and is mostly banknotes from the Colonial period through Reconstruction.
The artifacts are all from HNOC’s own holdings, said Erin Greenwald, the exhibit’s curator.
“The purpose of this show was for us to better understand a collecting category that we’ve had since the 1950s, which has grown exponentially throughout the years, but that hasn’t had a dedicated curator,” Greenwald said.
Elaborate banknotes from the antebellum period make up much of the collection, Greenwald said. There was a boom in new currency as new cities were settled on the Western frontier.
The 1787 Constitution prohibited the federal government from printing money, but that posed problems.
“What do you do when you’re a vastly, quickly growing country?” Greenwald asked.
“You’ve got the Louisiana Purchase (and) expansion to the West, so hauling around large crates full of coins is impractical.”
States began to charter other entities to act as financial institutions in the first decade of the 19th century. Thousands of banks began printing their own money. States, parishes, towns and individual merchants also printed their own. Consequently, currency needed to be exchanged when traveling within the United States, as with international travel today.
The chaos of early U.S. banking had other hazards. Political cartoons from the era mocked how easy it was to start a bank due to lax financial regulation. Unchartered, “wildcat banks” began to appear in the Western states, in response to a dire need for a medium of exchange on the frontier. Such banks were underfinanced and could take advantage of people, printing their own money without any oversight.
The diversity among bills in circulation also made counterfeiting easier, as people were more likely to mistake an unfamiliar banknote forgery from a far away city. Counterfeit detecting handbooks were used by cashiers to assist with the identification of fakes, but of course, these manuals also helped counterfeiters perfect their forgeries.
The imagery on the bills, selected by bank officers, changed often in an attempt to outpace counterfeiters. The depictions chosen provide insight into the culture that produced them.
Bills often would feature scenes of commerce and local culture. New Orleans banknotes, for example, showed images of ports, rivers and boats. When the Confederate States of America began printing currency, the notes promoted Confederate ideology with references to the domestic slave trade.
Currency remained decentralized throughout the Civil War and up until the passage of the National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, which gave the federal government jurisdiction over banking. These acts prohibited nonfederal banks from issuing coins and taxed them for issuing banknotes.
“Money! Money! Money!” concludes its presentation of early U.S. banking with some of the first federal banknotes, the predecessors of modern U.S. dollar bills. The arrival of these “demand notes” heralded the end of state and local currencies, which were discontinued in response to the new tax.
Money has been a cornerstone of life for so long that it can seem timeless and immutable, yet currency and banking continue to change as more transactions are completed digitally and the Federal Reserve issues updated bills.
Paper money also continues to evolve, as the Federal Reserve modernizes banknote designs, recently updating the $20 bill with the image of Tubman. And the nation comes up with ever more sophisticated technology and intricate designs to fight the age-old problem of counterfeiting.
The expansive collection of banknotes in “Money!” provides insight into the development of currency, a piece of history that changes as often it is exchanged.