Early U.S. Monetary Nomenclature

   Posted by: craig   in History, Things Lexical

A 100 dollar bill from 1862.

As I am looking forward to several upcoming Steampunk events, I became curious to know what monetary terminology would be most appropriate when conducting business with the dealers I’ll find there. Here is what my research produced.

Part I: Early U.S. Monetary Nomenclature that is Still Useful Today

Penny, Nickel, Dime, Quarter
As today (1793-).
Backslang for a penny (i.e. the word “penny” spoken phonemically backwards). Backslang evolved in Victorian England to enable private or secret conversation among street and market traders, notably butchers and greengrocers. Yennaps (pl.) refers to money, in general.
A very small amount of money, as in a handful of pennies. (“I picked it up for coppers at the Five and Dime.”)
Two Bits
25¢, i.e. two-eights of a dollar. Holdover from the Spanish dollar which was worth eight reales (as in “pieces of eight”), or eight “bits.” (“Shave and a haircut, two bits!”)
Usually referred to United States Notes (1862-1971) although the term was inherited from the Demand Notes they replaced. Greenbacks were issued in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. They were commonly called “greenbacks” because of the green tint introduced to discourage photographic counterfeiting.
A 5 dollar "greenback" from 1862.

A 5 dollar “greenback” from 1862.

$1. Probably a holdover from buckskin, a common bartering medium used before printed currency (e.g. in 1748 one cask of whiskey was worth 5 deer hides, or “five bucks”).
$2 (or £2).
$5 (or £5) (since 1843). (Note: The first known use of fin for $5 was not until 1916.)
$10, a sawbuck being a rack used for sawing wood that looks like the letter X end-on, and X being the Roman numeral for ten, which was prominently printed on early $10 bills (since 1850).
A 10 dollar bill, a.k.a. a sawbuck

A 10 dollar bill from 1863. They were know as sawbucks because of the X.

$10 (or £10) (since 1845).
Double Sawbuck, or just Double, or Dub
A 20 dollar gold certificate from 1882

A 20 dollar gold certificate from 1882.

$100 — the same way that a ton is jargon to a score of 100 in cricket or darts — stemming from the fact that a ton was first defined as 100 cubic feet in volume before it ever became associated with being a weight. (Note: The first known references of C-note and yard to mean $100 were not until the 1920’s.)
A 100 dollar bill from 1862.

A 100 dollar bill from 1862.

An (inconvenient) pocketful of loose change. (Note: The term did not come to be associated with loose change until the 1960’s, but since Henry Shrapnel first filled explosive shells with pellets c.1806, a denizen of the Gilded Age would certainly catch the reference.)

Part II: Early U.S. Monetary Nomenclature that is Obsolete Today

Privately produced paper money of low denomination that circulated widely in the frontier economies of the 19th century. They were often only spendable in the company store, rendering them next to useless and therefore only good as a “plaster” to treat sore legs. (Outlawed in 1890).
Little Half Sister
Half cent copper coin (minted 1793-1857).
Two-Cent Piece
2¢ copper coin (minted 1864–1873).
3¢ silver coin (minted 1851–1873), and later a copper-nickel coin (1865–1889).
Half Dime
5¢ silver coin (minted 1792–1873).
Twenty-Cent Piece
20¢ silver coin (minted 1875–1878).
Gold Dollar
$1 gold coin (minted 1849–1889).
Three-Dollar Piece
$3 gold coin (minted 1854–1889).
$10 gold coin, also the $2.50 Quarter Eagle and the $5 Half Eagle (all minted in gold 1792-1929). Note: “eagle” is official U.S. mint terminology, not slang.
Double Eagle
$20 gold coin (minted 1849-1933).

Part III: Timeline of U.S. Currency through the Gilded Age

  • Colonial Notes: In the early days of this nation, before and just after the American Revolution, Americans used English, Spanish, and French currencies. The Massachusetts Bay Colony issued the first paper money in the colonies that would later form the United States.
  • Continental Currency: American colonists issued paper currency for the Continental Congress to finance the Revolutionary War. The notes were backed by the anticipation of tax revenues. Without solid backing and because they were easily counterfeited, the notes quickly became devalued, giving rise to the phrase “not worth a Continental.”
  • The Nation’s First Bank: The Continental Congress chartered the Bank of North America in Philadelphia as the nation’s first real bank to give further financial support to the Revolutionary War.
  • The Dollar: The Continental Congress adopted the dollar as the unit for national currency. At that time, private bank-note companies printed a variety of notes.
  • After adoption of the Constitution in 1789, Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States and authorized it to issue paper bank notes to eliminate confusion and simplify trade. The bank served as the U.S. Treasury’s fiscal agent, thus performing the first central bank functions.
  • U.S. Mint: The Federal Monetary System was established with the creation of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The first American coins were struck in 1793.
  • Second U.S. Bank: The Second Bank of the U.S. was granted a 20-year charter.
  • State Bank Notes: With minimum regulation, a proliferation of 1,600 state-chartered, private banks issued paper money. State bank notes, with over 30,000 varieties of color and design, were easily counterfeited, which combined with bank failures to cause confusion and circulation problems.
  • Civil War: On the brink of bankruptcy and pressed to finance the Civil War, Congress authorized the United States Treasury to issue paper money for the first time in the form of non-interest bearing Treasury Notes called Demand Notes.
  • Greenbacks: Demand Notes were replaced by United States Notes which were issued in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. Commonly called “greenbacks” because of the green tint introduced to discourage photographic counterfeiting. The Secretary of the Treasury was empowered by Congress to have the notes engraved and printed by private bank note companies. The notes, characterized by a red seal and serial number, were signed by six Treasury Department employees and affixed with seals.
  • The design of U.S. currency incorporated a Treasury seal, the fine-line engraving necessary for the difficult-to-counterfeit intaglio printing, intricate geometric lathe work patterns, and distinctive cotton and linen paper with embedded red and blue fibers.
  • Gold Certificates were issued by the Department of the Treasury against gold coin and bullion deposits and were circulated until 1933. The most colorful of all United States paper currency and arguably the most attractive, Gold Certificates were issued in denominations of $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, and $10,000. Additionally, a $100,000 Gold Certificate was issued in 1934 but only circulated among Federal Reserve Banks.
  • Secret Service: The Department of the Treasury established the United States Secret Service to control counterfeiting. At that time, one-third of all circulating currency was estimated to be counterfeit.
  • National Bank Notes, backed by U.S. government securities, became predominant. By this time, 75 percent of bank deposits were held by nationally chartered banks. As State Bank Notes were replaced, the value of currency stabilized for a time.
  • The Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing started printing all U.S. currency.
  • The Department of the Treasury was authorized to issue Silver Certificates in exchange for silver dollars. The last issue was in the Series 1957.
  • Frank Winfield Woolworth opened the first successful “five and dime” store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • Martha Washington was the first and only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note. It appeared on the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891 (face), and 1896 (back).

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