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America's Paper Money: A Canvas for an Emerging Nation

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posted on 2023-12-20, 15:21 authored by William L. Pressly

The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690 became the first government in the Western world to print paper money, the imagery for which initiated an indigenous American art form of remarkable dynamism and originality. After the Revolutionary War, disillusioned by how quickly its promiscuous printing of Continental currency had led to hyperinflation, the U.S. government left it to private institutions such as state-chartered banks to carry on this artistic American tradition. Adorned with a vast variety of images, bank notes soon became the fledgling country’s primary currency. With pressures of the Civil War, the federal government in 1861 began taking charge of the paper-money supply by creating a national currency; simultaneously, the Confederate States of America was creating a competing self-image, making heavy use of bank-note vignettes. Later, collaboration between government engravers and well-known artists on the 1896 Silver Certificates marked the apex of U.S. government currency design. For two centuries, American creativity and technical ingenuity resulted in imagery on paper money that helped create and enhance the nation’s imagined self.



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Smithsonian Institution; Smithsonian American Art Museum


Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press