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Seeing America: Paper's Roll
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
November 11, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not a paper money collector, but I can certainly see its appeal. After all, I was a stamp collector for more than half a century, and it’s possible to view a piece of paper money as a stamp on a much larger scale, with printing on both sides.

Well, that may be stretching things a bit, but the book I’m going to review in this column is all about obsolete paper money. In fact, a significant portion of the book consists of an appendix titled, “Full-Size Bank-Note Images.”

The book is Pictures From a Distant Country: Seeing America Through Old Paper Money, by the late Richard Doty. At the time of his death, Doty was senior curator of numismatics at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Pictures From a Distant Country received a 2013 Extraordinary Merit Award from the Numismatic Literary Guild.

The “Distant Country” of the title is really America in the distant past, the period before greenbacks were issues from the federal government. In his study of old paper money, Doty was “…seeking a glimpse into a vanished world, as the people who lived there saw it.” As he put it: “The private bank note can give us some of the most revealing images we shall ever possess about this vanished land and its inhabitants: what they thought of themselves; what they thought of each other; how they viewed the issues of the day (and what they thought were the issues of the day; their list would surely differ from ours); how they viewed work, the factory, the farm, the future.”

So, how well did Doty succeed in his quest to use obsolete paper money to travel back in time? As Q. David Bowers puts it in his Foreword, “…if you spend a weekend with Pictures from a Distant Country, you will have a good time.… A finer view of life in America in the early 19th century could not be imagined. I anticipate that Dick Doty’s master work will be an essential addition to any numismatic library and, beyond that, to the library of anyone who appreciates and enjoys illustrations showing the development of the country in which we live.”

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In Chapter 1, “Constructing a National Identity,” Doty discusses the educational function of early bank notes, how the issuers were trying, either consciously or unconsciously, to impress on citizens such ideas as the strength of the issuer, pride in the country’s accomplishments, patriotic themes. He talks about the frequent appearance of George Washington’s image on early bank notes. “Washington frequently appeared in the company of real, historical figures, either from his own time or from more recent times.” All of this is accompanied by glorious images of entire bank notes or enlarged portions of notes.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Doty discusses early bank note images of “The People in the Way” and “The People in the Middle,” respectively. The former were what we today call Native Americans. “I’ve called them ‘the people in the way,’ in recognition of the fact that, for many 19th-century Americans, that is exactly who they were.” Images of Native Americans on early bank notes “…made their appearance on America’s private currency within a few years of the introduction of the medium.…” Doty points out that the image is frequently that of a passive onlooker.

As for the “People in the Middle,” these were the slaves, the people we know today as African Americans. Such images did not appear early on, as is the case with Native Americans. Doty writes, “…among the thousands of notes that I have examined at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere, I have discovered precisely one image of African-Americans prior to 1850.” After this date, their images appeared on bank notes as “…a reflection of larger events, happenings in which they themselves were the main, if reluctant, participants.” These events, of course, culminated in the Civil War.

Women on bank notes is the focus of Chapter 4, and Doty writes, “I observe that they held court on rather more than half the private bank notes of 19th-century America. Near the close of the chapter, Doty notes, “Mother adorned many notes.…” This ties directly into the subject of Chapter 5, “Childhood and Family.”

Economic considerations dominate Chapters 6 (“Making a Living”) and 8 (“Images of Worth”). Given the rural nature of much of the country, many of the images in Chapter 6 involve farm life, whereas in Chapter 8 pictures of the issuing banks are often shown to reinforce the ideas of solidity and worth.

In Chapter 7, Doty examines a less serious function of early bank notes, which was entertainment, or, as the chapter is titled, “Whimsy.” In the chapter, “We shall find things which amused the men and women of an earlier age.” Children and animals are often depicted on the notes, and there’s even one showing George Washington as a Roman dignitary.

The final chapters show notes depicting images of progress (e.g., railroad cars, steamboats) and the closing of an era (e.g., celebration of the frontiersman and of small towns and villages). In the Epilogue, Doty points out that one of the victims of the Civil War was the private bank note, “…the money which had built and sustained the Distant Country. This was appropriate, for the Distant Country itself was another.”

With my quotes from it, I hope I’ve been able to give you some of the flavor of Doty’s fascinating book. Page after page is covered with images from bank notes that amplify the author’s entertaining and enlightening prose. If you have any interest in the early history of our country, even if you have little interest in paper money, you’ll find this book a worthwhile addition to your library.

With a list price of $24.95, you’ll this Whitman-published book discounted on Amazon. A Kindle edition is available for just $9.99.

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