Greenback offers glimpse into past

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 9:07 PM

Mistakes can be history’s best allies.

Consider the Winona County clerk who, in 1868, overlooked the dollar bill tucked into documents filed by Mssrs. Northrup and Hoagland, who were seeking to recover $562.50 owed to them by Mr. Jewitt.

Last year, a woman doing genealogical research at the Minnesota History Center opened the tri-fold case file, ready to decode the exquisitely looping penmanship, and found a well-worn dollar bill. It was likely a filing fee that, for more than 140 years, remained unpaid. (But then, apparently, so did the $562.50.)

She brought the bill to the library desk where Charles Rodgers, a government records archivist, tried to figure out just what he had. So he did what any of us would do: He Googled “1862 dollar bill,” quickly determining that the dollar very likely was genuine.

It was more than that: It was among the first dollar bills printed by the U.S. government — the result of “extraordinary times” requiring “extraordinary measures,” in the words of a congressman from that era.

That era was the Civil War, and the North was in trouble, Rodgers said. The federal government could use only gold and silver in its financial dealings, and those supplies were finite. Worse yet, hoarding had begun. Rep. Elbridge G. Spaulding of New York suggested the government print paper currency.

“It had to have been a huge cultural change,” Rodgers said. Just as citizens today are reluctant to replace their paper bills with dollar coin, so Americans were skeptical that their cold, hard coins could be replaced with flimsy paper.

But they were. This dollar, a little raggedy and soft as a paper towel, clearly has a history of being passed through hands. Confronting a singular, ordinary object in the context of being an artifact, the romance of history kicks in: Over how many counters had this dollar been slid? And for bacon, or for beer? Had it bolstered collection plates at church? Been someone’s wages, or a wager?

Rodgers, with 28 years at the Minnesota Historical Society, understands such wonderings but says that such a bill can tell more concrete, and no less interesting, stories. Consider that one side is printed in green ink. That practice, likely to make counterfeiting more difficult, gave rise to the term “greenback.” (The front of the bill is printed in green, black and red inks.)

Or look at the man on the money, Salmon P. Chase. Paper money offered the politically ambitious Treasury secretary perhaps the first, best public billboard of the day, spurring his run at the presidency in 1864. But Lincoln was again nominated. Today, Chase may best be remembered for getting the phrase “In God We Trust” on coins.

Finally, Rodgers said, look at the document in which the dollar was found. In days before staplers, pages were bound together with thin red ribbons or string. In Europe, ribbon also was called tape, he said, so if you wanted to enable someone to easily examine some papers, you would “cut the red tape.”

(Of course, Rodgers added, straight pins sometimes were used to hold together papers, which is why experienced researchers are quite cautious about blithely reaching into boxes of documents.)
The dollar bill brought to light last year could today be worth anywhere from $100 to $1,000, Rodgers said. But it has been catalogued, cross-referenced and archived as part of the society’s holdings.

In the curious way of history, the dollar — however valuable — proved merely a sidelight to what the woman researching her family tree learned that day.

“To find a dollar bill is a different sort of treasure,” Rodgers said. “But it also told the woman something she didn’t know before, that Mr. Jewitt skipped out on a debt. Every day, people find information in here they didn’t know before, which is very gratifying.”

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
 

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