Peter Y.W. wrote this feature article. Lee posted the following article on June 11, Smithsonianmag.com. It reaches back 125 year to remind us that the Harriet Tubman Note is not the first currency used to define American nationality. The Educational Series of 1896 is a precedent example, and may be the most beloved among collectors. However, it was also the least useful in its intended purpose of circulating as money.
Lee relates how the United States was shifting from an agrarian economy in the 1890s to an urban industrial one. Parallel to this conflict was the struggle between the predominantly rural proponents of free silver, who wanted unlimited coinage of the metal, or poor man’s money, and those who supported the gold standard, which was dominated mainly by urban interests. The “Gold Bugs”, or the Gold Bugs, felt threatened by an increase in money supply.
Silver certificates issued in 1896 were an attempt to unite the nation during those turbulent times. Lee claims that Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle supported the creation of the silver certificates of 1896. An adherent to gold, Claude M. Johnson was the Chief of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He authorized the “prestigious, artistic and ‘educational series of silver certificates” as a way of celebrating nationalism.
The notes were designed by three well-known muralists. William H. Low (one of the three noted muralists) stated in 1893 that the notes would be starting at the root to make a work in art accessible to every man who purchases a loaf.
Low saw the Constitution as a lesson in civics for children and created the $1 note. The History Instructing Youth design is said to represent the child-saving movement. This was a movement in juvenile justice reform that saw white middle-class philanthropists take immigrant and low-class children and make them productive workers and good citizens.
Lee said that there was another subliminal message. In which youth is the teacher. Lee cites the example of Coin’s Financial School, which illustrates the free status of silver. It was an 1894 pamphlet by William Hope Harvey. This pamphlet supported bimetallism. It was the story of Coin, a child financial advisor who saw silver as democratic and gold aristocratic — money for the people versus money for the wealthy. Coin convinces gold bugs to accept silver’s merits in the pamphlet.
The Series 1896 $2- and $5-silver certificates showed technology and national progress. Edwin Blashfield’s Science presenting Steam and Electricity for Commerce and Manufacture was a tribute to industrialization. “Steam” is shown as a child, while “Electricity”, “Commerce” or “Manufacture” are shown as adults. Walter Shirlaw’s $5 note depicting “America” was an ode of American success abroad. Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, which “enlightens” the world, is represented in the allegory “America”.
This series didn’t have the desired results. Protests were raised about certain designs, including the $5 silver certificate’s partial nudity. The proponents of gold did not change their views and still considered free silver a plot to overthrow the economy and devalue American workers. The issue in the east was immigrants and foreign silver miners. In the west it was “uneducated Westerners,” who were easily misled while urban (presumably Eastern?) sophisticates knew more.
Collectors also know that the Educational Series as currency was poor. The denominations proved difficult to distinguish for counting, especially when they were dirty. Additionally, their appearance encouraged counterfeiting, especially when they were soiled. Future designs will have larger numbers and more blank space.