By Stephen Goldsmith
Santa Claus once appeared on bank
notes as a universally accepted symbol of charity and generosity,
but did you know that once upon a time there was a five shilling
fine for celebrating Christmas?
During the Revolutionary War, the
Continental Congress authorized the printing of the first paper
money to be issued by a centralized American government. When the
first notes were issued, they were worth their equivalent in
Spanish Milled Dollars. By the time the Revolutionary War ended,
the United States was deep in debt, and inflation was rampant, and
it took $400 Continental paper dollars to purchase items that were
worth one Spanish Milled Dollar.
Americans had learned a valuable
lesson, and were no longer interested in accepting paper money
issued by the central government of the United States. This feeling
would last right up through the War Between the States.
In order to fill the vacuum that
was created when the U.S. Government stopped issuing paper money,
individual states, banks, insurance companies, railroads, and even
local merchants began to issue their own paper money. By the time
the Civil War rolled around, there were well over 30,000 different
paper money issues in circulation at one time or another.
Paper money issued by local
institutions was readily accepted where it was issued, but when
this same paper money was carried to different parts of the
country, it usually traded at a discount. This created a difficult
situation for merchants. They had to pay careful attention to which
issuers were solvent, and which issuers were not.
Entire newspapers were devoted to this subject. One of these
newspapers was The Bank Note Reporter. A sophisticated banker or
merchant might subscribe to The Bank Note Reporter, and keep up
with the status of most of the bank note issuers. Many of the notes
that were in circulation were counterfeit, issued from fraudulent
institutions, or traded at a severe discount, and The Bank Note
Reporter listed this information.
The general public did not have
access to this tool, and they often had to make their judgments of
value and legitimacy based simply on the appearance of the bank
notes. A beautifully engraved, colorful note with a beautiful and
symbolic illustration inspired confidence, so bankers chose their
symbols very carefully.
Portraits of universally accepted
famous Americans such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin
were popular. Railroad trains, symbolizing the latest in
transportation technology, were also prevalent. Eagles often
appeared on these bank notes, and animals of local interest, such
as frogs, pigs, cattle, and dogs were occasionally utilized.
Classical figures symbolizing
strength and trust were frequently used, but perhaps the most
whimsical and entertaining symbol seen on paper money was the one
that stood for charity and generosity, and that was Santa Claus
Santa was not always a universally
acceptable symbol. According to Roger Durand (Interesting Notes
About Christmas), in 1659 the Puritans passed a law that levied a
five shilling fine for anybody found observing Christmas day "… by
abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way…."
By 1682, this law was repealed, and
beginning in 1836 with Alabama, states and territories began
recognizing Christmas Day as a legal holiday in this country. The
use of Santa Claus as a universally recognized and popular symbol
soon became widespread, and he eventually appeared on over thirty
different obsolete bank note is sues in America, all very eagerly
We present a sampling of these
wonderful notes in celebration of the Christmas Season...