What it means to touch history: The SC Archives old currency project

UPDATE: The SCDAH has been forced to postpone the upcoming currency auction, originally scheduled for May 2011.  Work is ongoing with the currency behind the scenes, and when a new date is set for an auction, I will try to post it here.

UPDATE 2: The auction is back on for May!

The article below is from the Columbia (SC) Star, January 29, 2010.  A bit has changed since then, such as we are now on Box 5, and I’m not sure of any money found to be older than the 1820’s, nor is hardly any of it “moldy” (although some certainly is), but this is a pretty good article describing the old currency project I’m currently working on with the South Carolina Department of Archives & History.  There will be another sealed-bid auction in May, and we are working on cataloging the lots now.

Of note, none of the money is “Confederate money”, although the CSA did issue its own paper currency; it is all from The Bank of the State of South Carolina, which also served as an official arm of the State Treasury.  Until the 20th Century, states and private banks issued their own paper money, making up much of the circulating currency at the time. They even issued “fractionals”, notes with face values of less than a dollar, because the Constitution clearly allots the power of coining money to Congress; much of what we work with are fractionals, including 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, 50-, and 75-cent notes, and almost all of those were printed after the war began.  Whole-dollar notes were printed in large quantities both before and during the war, and I’d say we get about half and half; their denominations are $1, $2, $3, $4, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100.

Link to the article here. Commentary is below it.

Stacks of money found in SC State House

2010-01-29 / Front Page
Photo and story by Julia Rogers Hook

When you walk into one of the back rooms at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and see a table spread with paper money dating back to the 1700s, visions of horse–drawn carriages and ladies in hoop skirts come to mind. The money is old, moldy, and filled with the rich history of the South. Several days a month, you’ll also find historian and conservator Jack Meyer working his magic restoring monies dating from before the Civil War.

After the war, the SC State Bank went bankrupt and all of its issued currency was suddenly deemed worthless, Meyer said.

“When the South lost the war, the new Reconstruction government refused to cover the paper money issued by the state,” Meyer said. “Previously affluent people suddenly found themselves broke. A few years later, after an 1880 lawsuit, the government agreed to pay half price for the paper money in state bonds, but the people never fully recouped the total worth.”

Large amounts of the money were destroyed after the war, but some was stored in the hopes that the South would indeed rise again. It briefly went back into circulation when the state required courts to redeem it in 1879–1880. During a renovation to the SC state capital building in the 1960s 40 boxes of the money were found bundled up in the basement. It had been left there for more than a century. Eventually, it was all brought to the archives.

“We had the boxes here and something had to be done with it,” he said. “It was taking up space that we needed. The then director of the archives, Rodger Stroup, asked me if I would be interested in looking at it and possibly working to organize and restore it,” said Meyer.

That was two years ago. Out of the 40 boxes of bundled money, Meyer is currently working on box number three.

Jack Meyer holds a bundle of Confederate money found in the basement of the SC State House. Above are stacks of bills he laid out to work on and a closeup of one of the bills. Jack Meyer holds a bundle of Confederate money found in the basement of the SC State House. Above are stacks of bills he laid out to work on and a closeup of one of the bills.

“It’s a process that takes time,” he said. “I definitely have job security. Too bad it’s all on a volunteer basis,” he quipped.

Heather South, the Archive’s preservation officer, said that while Meyer wasn’t financially compensated, the museum’s gratitude was plentiful.

“Jack is one of the few people around who is knowledgeable about the currency,” she said. “He volunteers his time to come in and sort the money as well as restore it. I don’t know what we would have done without him.”

South said the Archive was most grateful for the potential to make some badly needed funds from the sale of the money.

“We recently had a sealed bid auction to see if there was a market for the bills,” she said. “We raised enough money to buy some preservation equipment that we could never have afforded otherwise. We got a digital scanner that allows us to scan anything from maps to blue prints, no matter what size the document may be. That has allowed us to display so many things online that we normally had no way to copy.”

Both Meyer and South hope that once the money is sorted and restored, they can again put it up for sale and glean a tidy sum for the Archives.

“Right now we are using several online markets for a few of the bills, but between the rules and the website fees, we really don’t make a lot,” South said.

Meyer said that he wanted to build a market for the bills.

“In the past, there have been too few notes available for purchase,” he said. “We want to increase the availability and make it affordable. While a lot of people would like to buy a piece of history, unless they are collectors, they won’t pay $500 for a bill. But they will pay $20.”

To prepare for the auction, Meyer is separating the fragile bills and sorting them into categories.

“Depending upon the font and place and date of issue, you can have several versions of any bill,” he said. “We want to auction off some of scarcer bills that are in good condition.”

Just from the third box Meyer was working one, there were five versions of the $1 bill, the $5 bill and several of the $10, $20, and $50. If the bill is damaged, Meyer said it takes roughly two hours to repair it.

“When it really gets interesting is what you find on the back of the notes,” he said. “Unlike present day currency this money was printed on one side. After the war, a millionaire suddenly turned into a pauper as the currency lost its value, but the people maintained their sense of humor.”

Meyer found one bill that said “This is the last of $50,000 and this is going for whiskey.”

Written on a ten dollar bill Meyer found was “The last $10 of $10,000. Goodbye old bill.”

A fifty–cent note had been used as a permission pass so that a slave was allowed to walk from one business to another, Meyer said.

“One bill promised the bearer the amount of the bill if the bearer would vote for a certain candidate,” he laughed.

“These are the ones we keep because, of course, they are the most interesting. We also like to see how they repaired the money back then. Some are literally sewn together and some were pasted onto newspaper when they got too thin.

South said that the Archives is looking forward to the upcoming auction.

“We have historical records here dating back to 1671,” she said. “There’s 39,000 cubic feet of storage in the facility and to properly preserve the documents we keep the rooms at 60 degrees with 40% humidity. But it all takes money, and Jack’s work can bring in that money that will allow us to continue that effort.”

She said that by the time many artifacts reach the museum they have suffered all sorts of damage depending where they were stored.

“We have the 1789 copy of the Bill of Rights here but it had been damaged by bugs, mold, and water. We hope to use the money from the old bills to purchase newer and better methods of restoration and preservation. It’s an exciting concept.”

d back upstairs, Meyer said he was glad to be a part of the process.

“Only 37 more boxes to go,” he said.

It’s really amazing to sort through these bills and literally touch history.  I’ve found several dated April 13, 1861 (and the whole-dollar notes were all hand-dated, so they were indeed made on that day), as well as one from 1822, another with an ode to General Beauregard on the back, and a stack that may have been signed by George A. Trenholm, the Confederate Treasury Secretary.  Something extra is added by actually touching currency that was created when James Monroe was President, or holding an eyewitness’s poem about the bombardment of Fort Sumter, or running fingers across the ink spilled there by an executive of the Southern Confederacy.  I often pause without thinking to do so, transporting my mind to the place and time of the original owners of the bills, trying to think and see things the way they did, trying to understand, as much as I can, the individual who earned that bill, held that bill, wrote on that bill, spent that bill.  With the paper and ink literally in my fingertips, for some reason, and for just an instant, I feel as if I am one with history.

(Please read the disclaimer in the About page of this blog.)

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