By Fred Reed
U.S. silver dollars
did not circulate much in the 19th and early
20th centuries. Mostly they served as backing
for federal paper money, principally Silver
Certificates. Notes bear legends to that effect.
Mostly the dollars sat around in canvas bags in
the U.S. Treasury and other federal
depositories. A few were kept on hand at most
banks so uncle Steve could carry a couple around
in his pocket to his Friday night poker game and
feel like a big shot, or aunt Dorothy could buy
a stocking stuffer for a holiday present for
nieces and nephews.
Of course, in the hobby of coin collecting,
silver dollars have been a perennial favorite
for more than a century. But these are the
exceptions. Paper substitutes for the bulky
coins were the rule.
Notes like the saddle blanket (large size) Fr.
259 reverse shown bear the legend: "This
certifies that there have been deposited in the
Treasury of the United States Five Silver
Dollars payable to the bearer on demand." Thus
it's quite appropriate that five splendid silver
dollar images grace the backs these wonderful
and popular Series 1886 $5 Silver Certificates.
Printing images of coins on notes traces back to
the 18th century when virtually identical images
appeared on many of the Continental Currency
notes and coins authorized by the Continental
Congress. In the 19th century many obsolete bank
notes and scrip bore images of Spanish "dollars"
(ocho reales) and U.S. coins.
The Act of Feb. 28, 1878, authorized Silver
Certificates of $10 and up, and the Act of Aug.
4, 1886, added the lower denominations $1, $2
The five-spot became the showcase for five
contemporary Morgan silver dollars. The central
dollar is an obverse of a then current 1886
cartwheel in a central engraved medallion. The
entire cartouche contains five coins. Flanking
this image are four silver dollar reverses.
Morgan dollars as many readers know were
designed by George T. Morgan, an English artist,
who studied at the Royal Mint in London. He was
recruited by U.S. Mint Director Henry Linderman,
and offered a six-month contract at $8/day.
Morgan accepted and immigrated to the United
States, sailing from Liverpool in 1876. Coinage
commenced in 1878. Morgan was appointed
assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint in
1880. According to tradition, Anna Williams was
his model for the Liberty head profile on the
The silver dollar reverses that appear on note
backs were historic. Because they bore the motto
"In God We Trust" above the eagle, this was the
first time this particular religious phrase
appeared on our federal paper money. Its use was
made mandatory during the Eisenhower
Administration following World War II.
According to Treasury Department records, nearly
34 million of these $5 certificates were issued,
representing approximately 170 million silver
dollars. By way of comparison, during the time
these notes were issued, approximately 180
million silver dollars were struck.
Notes were issued over a five-year period before
a plain back was introduced on the Series 1891
$5 Silver Certificates. The new back had a great
deal of open space. It was believed the complex
silver dollar back contributed to the ease of
their counterfeiting, while this "white space"
would make the notes easier to identify as
genuine and harder for the felon to copy.
When these notes were issued, the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing was in the process of
assuming full responsibility for executing U.S.
currency. You'll notice the small legend at the
bottom of the note's back reads "Engraved and
Printed at the Bureau, Engraving & Printing." It
was not until Oct. 1, 1887, that the BEP was
given the responsibility to print all U.S.
currency and securities, and 1894 when it took
over printing stamps as well.
Fortunately for collectors, the silver dollar
backs are plentiful and readily available in
high grades, making them prime candidates for
the type collector or collector of coins on
notes. Experts estimate 1,200 notes are extant.