The colorful history of paper money before the Civil War
Before Civil War greenbacks and a national bank network established a uniform federal currency in the United States, the proliferation of loosely regulated banks saturated the early American republic with upwards of 10,000 unique and legal bank notes. This number does not even include the plethora of counterfeit bills and the countless shinplasters of questionable legality issued by unregulated merchants, firms, and municipalities. Adding to the chaos was the idiosyncratic method for negotiating their value, an often manipulative face-to-face discussion consciously separated from any haggling over the price of the work, goods, or services for sale. In Bank Notes and Shinplasters, Joshua R. Greenberg shows how ordinary Americans accumulated and wielded the financial knowledge required to navigate interpersonal bank note transactions.
Locating evidence of Americans grappling with their money in fiction, correspondence, newspapers, printed ephemera, government documents, legal cases, and even on the money itself, Greenberg argues Americans, by necessity, developed the ability to analyze the value of paper financial instruments, assess the strength of banking institutions, and even track legislative changes that might alter the rules of currency circulation. In his examination of the doodles, calculations, political screeds, and commercial stamps that ended up on bank bills, he connects the material culture of cash to financial, political, and intellectual history.
The book demonstrates that the shift from state-regulated banks and private shinplaster producers to federally authorized paper money in the Civil War era led to the erasure of the skill, knowledge, and lived experience with banking that informed debates over economic policy. The end result, Greenberg writes, has been a diminished public understanding of how currency and the financial sector operate in our contemporary era, from the 2008 recession to the rise of Bitcoin.