If you’re looking for a chance to explore numismatic intellectual puzzles, a great place to start is in the world of obsolete paper money!
Today I was presented with a single note of paper money—a $1 bill of the Savings Bank of Louisville. On its face it looks like many other notes of obsolete paper money, with vignettes and counters, the name of the institution, the denomination, the date, and signatures. Easy to let your eye slide over it and on to the next thing, in favor of something with perhaps more color or mythological objects. At first glance, this would not be a note I would judge to be very interesting, among the thousands and thousands of notes out there to peruse.
But they say you should never judge a book by its cover. The same goes with paper money. Never judge the complexity of the mystery by the complexity of the design.
When I am looking for information on a note, the place I always start is the bank name and the location. The title is bold and easy to see. And if you look closely at the bottom of the note, you can see that this note is payable “in Current Bank Notes” in “Nashville, Tennessee.” So far so easy. But a search for a Savings Bank of Louisville in Nashville, Tennessee, comes up fruitless. No records of any kind to be found.
Now we get into the twisty and odd world of obsolete paper money legislation. For example, was this bank chartered in Nashville at all? Should I search for a Louisville County that perhaps had some early borders around Nashville? Searching for Louisville County leads me to a different town, Louisville, Tennessee, which was established in the early 1800s and officially incorporated in 1851. Another possibility. The title indicates that “Louisville” had something to do with the bank’s location. Just looking at the note does not tell us exactly what, however, and the number of options is growing. Perhaps, for example, the note had a branch in either Nashville or Louisville, with a parent bank located somewhere else.
Another potential option appears as we dig even further—perhaps this bank was not chartered in Tennessee at all!
A different search for the Savings Bank of Louisville brings up fruitful results—but this bank was chartered in Louisville, Kentucky. Why would a Kentucky bank have notes with a Tennessee imprint? At first I thought: perhaps the Kentucky bank had an agency located in Tennessee so that it could circulate notes at a distance and therefore make a profit. This was a common-enough occurrence among state-chartered banks, either as fraud or from legitimate entities. The longer a note stayed in circulation without redemption, the longer the bank had access to the hard cash (specie). And if the note was never returned, making a long journey across states to the bank for redemption, that was an automatic profit for the bank.
However, there are certain facts between the two objects that do not match up. Consider Exhibit A, the physical note we see. The date on the note is May 1st, 1838. Other notes with this bank’s imprint, all from Nashville, range between 1837 and 1838. But Exhibit B, the bank in Kentucky, was not chartered until 1854! These cannot be the same entity. The notes pre-date the Kentucky bank by almost two decades.
What’s more, a search for bank notes of the Kentucky bank comes up fruitless. Further pursuit into the legislation reveals that the bank was chartered without the ability to release bank notes. It could only deal in credit. It is of course possible that the bank did not follow its charter, and released bank notes anyway, but there are none found as of yet to prove this. So—we are presented with physical notes of one bank in Tennessee, with no historical information to back it up; and we discover the historical evidence of another bank in Kentucky, but with no physical notes to give it foundation.
I’m still working on this Rubix Cube of a puzzle, where every piece of data found on the note leads to a new idea. I certainly can’t do it with my eyes closed like some Rubix Cube champs can! But if anything makes me feel like a paper money sleuth, it’s this search for historical knowledge, and all of it surrounding one single note. As I said, there are thousands and thousands of notes to be pared down and relieved of their secrets, each one unique and interesting. You can go at the study of paper money from so many angles—take your pick among dozens and dozens of options. It’s knowledge a la carte, but one thing I can promise you—don’t expect the paths you take to lead you where you think they’ll go!
Caitlyn Trautwein is Senior Associate Editor at Whitman Publishing. Bank note photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions.