Art and engraving on United States banknotes

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In early 18th century Colonial America, engravers began experimenting with copper plates as an alternative medium to wood. Applied to the production of paper currency, copper-plate engraving allowed for greater detail and production during printing. It was the transition to steel engraving that enabled banknote design and printing to rapidly advance in the United States during the 19th century.

Engraving and printing early American banknotes

Eight pence note (1778), engraved and printed by Paul Revere

The first issue of government-authorized paper currency in America was printed by the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1690. This first issue, dated 10 December 1690, was printed from an engraved copper plate with four subjects to a sheet. The first engraver identified in archival records was John Coney who appears to have been paid 30£ on 12 March 1703 to engrave three copper plates for the Massachusetts issue dated 21 November 1702. Given the many design similarities between the 1690 note and those engraved by Coney in 1702, there has been speculation that he may have engraved the earlier note. If true, he would be the first American to engrave on copper plates. Several historical figures with a background in engraving and printing were involved in the production of early American currency.

Benjamin Franklin began printing Province of Pennsylvania notes in 1729, took on a partner (David Hall) in 1749, and then left the currency printing business after the 1764 issue. Paul Revere both engraved and printed bank notes for the Province and then the state of Massachusetts between 1775 and 1779, and the Province of New Hampshire in 1775. Revere's father, Apollos Rivoire, was John Coney's pupil. David Rittenhouse engraved some border designs for the 10 May 1775 Continental currency and 25 March 1776 Colony of New Jersey 6£ note. Francis Hopkinson does not appear to have done engraving, but he is credited with the designs for border-cuts, emblems, and mottos on three issues of Continental currency in 1778–1779.

Engraving and printing at the U.S. Treasury

The first series of Federally-issued United States banknotes was authorized by Congressional acts on 17 July 1861 (12 Stat. 259) and 5 August 1861 (12 Stat. 313). While the Demand Notes were issued from the United States Treasury, they were engraved and printed elsewhere. In 1861, in fact until the mid-1870s, the Treasury Department lacked the facilities or infrastructure to engrave and print the bulk of it financial paper and therefore relied on external contracts with private bank note companies. By means of a Congressional act dated 11 July 1862 (12 Stat. 532), the Secretary of the Treasury received authorization to purchase machinery and employ the staff necessary to manufacture currency at the Treasury. It was not until 1877 (19 Stat. 353) that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was given funding for labor, paper, transportation, and other expenses with the provision that all work be conducted on site, and for a price commensurate with that of the private bank note companies. On 1 October 1877, the BEP took over the production of both United States Note and National Bank Note production.

National Bank Notes

“TO ARTISTS, ENGRAVERS AND OTHERS – Designs for National Currency Notes are hereby invited, of the denominations of $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000, to be issued under the Act of Congress authorizing a National Currency, approved 25 February 1863”. Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, placed this classified notice in late March, 1863. Other than describe some of the required features of each note (e.g., legal wording, placement of Treasury signatures, etc.), the only direction given to prospective applicants was that submissions must be original (i.e., they cannot have ever been illustrated on U.S. currency) and that "the designs must be national in their character". It is uncertain how many proposals were submitted, or what was involved in the selection process, but the final decision was to draw heavily on the use of historic American images which adorn the Capitol Rotunda. The motivation for this selection was two-fold: educationally it would circulate images depicting important scenes from American history while at the same time enhancing the security of the note by involving highly complex engravings.

By July 1863, contracts were signed with American Bank Note Company (ABNCo) and Continental Bank Note Company (CBNCo) (which would later be absorbed by ABNCo) to design, engrave, and begin printing National Bank Notes. ABNCo was contracted for the $20, $50, and $100 denominations, CBNCo was contracted for the $5 and $10 denominations, and National Bank Note Company contracted for the designs for the $2, $500, and $1,000 denominations. The contract descriptions addresses each denomination individually and specifies which image from the Capitol Rotunda should be used for the reverse and what type of vignettes should be on the obverse (with specific names).

The first National Bank Notes were issued on 21 December 1863.

Denomination set of first issue/design National Bank Notes

Art and engraving on National Bank Notes (First Charter Period)
Banknote Value/series Vignette Vignette information
$1 Original Series
The First National Bank
Lebanon, Indiana
Pres John C. Daily
Cash Abram O. Miller
(eng) Charles Burt
(Art) Theodore August Liebler
Landing of the Pilgrims
(eng) Charles Burt
(art) Edwin White
$2 National Bank Note $2 Series 1875
The First National Bank
Emporia, Kansas
Pres Harrison Cory Cross
Cash Elliott Raper Holderman
Stars and Stripes
(eng) Luigi (Louis) Delnoce
$5 Series 1875
The Vineland National Bank
Vineland, New Jersey
Pres Horatio N. Greene
Cash Willis T. Virgil
Landing of Columbus
(eng) Unsure
(art) John Vanderlyn
$10 National Bank Note $10 Series 1875
The First National Bank
Bismarck, North Dakota
VP Henry Rinaldo Porter
Cash O.H. Whitaker
BEP vignette of Franklin and Electricity by Alfred Jones Franklin and Electricity
(eng) Alfred Jones
BEP vignette by Frederick Girsch of Powell’s painting DeSoto Discovering the Mississippi DeSoto Discovering the Mississippi
(eng) Frederick Girsch
(art) John Trumbull
$20 National Bank Note $20 Series 1875
The First National Bank
Butte, Montana
Pres Andrew Jackson Davis
Cash Emerson B. Weirick
Vignette of the Battle of Lexington Battle of Lexington
(eng) Luigi (Louis) Delnoce
(Art) F. O. C. Darley
Engraved allegory of loyalty Loyalty
(eng) Alfred Jones
Vignette of the Baptism of Pocahontas Baptism of Pocahontas
(eng) Charles Burt
(art) John G. Chapman
$50 Series 1875
The First National Bank
Cleveland, Ohio
Pres James Barnett
Cash Albert K. Spencer
Vignette Embarkation of the Pilgrims Embarkation of the Pilgrims
(eng) W.W. Rice
(art) Robert W. Weir
$100 National Bank Note $100 Original Series
The Raleigh National Bank
Raleigh, North Carolina
Pres William Horn Battle
Cash Charles Francis Dewey
Declaration of Independence
(eng) Frederick Girsch
(art) John Trumbull
$500 National Bank Note $500 Original Series
The Appleton National Bank
Lowell, Massachusetts
Pres John A. Knowles
Cash John F. Kimball
BEP Allegory of Civilization by James David Smillie Civilization
(eng) James David Smillie
BEP vignette by Frederick Girsch of Trumbull’s painting Surrender of General Burgoyne Surrender of General Burgoyne
(eng) Frederick Girsch
(art) John Trumbull
Proof of a $1,000 National Bank Note $1,000 Series 1875 (proof)
The First National Bank
Salem, Massachusetts
General Scott entering Mexico City by Alfred Jones Scott Entering City of Mexico
(eng) Alfred Jones
BEP vignette by Delnoce & Girsch of Trumbull’s painting General George Washington Resigning His Commission General George Washington Resigning His Commission
(eng) Delnoce & Girsch
(art) John Trumbull

Gallery of related artwork

Interest Bearing Notes

Art and engraving on Interest Bearing Notes
Banknote Value/series Vignette Vignette information
$10 One-year 5% (1864) Peace
$50 Two-year 5% (1864) Caduceus
(eng) Alfred Jones
(art) John W. Casilear
$100 Two-year 5% (1864) Farmer and Mechanic
In the Turret
$1,000 One-year 5% (1863) Justice
$1,000 Two-year 5% (1863) Guerriere and Constitution
$5,000 One-year 5% (1863) The Altar of Liberty
(eng) Luigi (Louis) Delnoce


Art and engraving on Other Notes
Banknote Value/series Vignette Vignette information
$10 Legal Tender (1880) Introduction of the Old World to the New
$5 Legal Tender (1880) The Pioneer
(eng) Gugler
$500 Gold certificate (1882) Eagle


Banknote Value/series Portrait Vignette information
$1 Legal Tender (1880) George Washington
$2 Legal Tender (1880) Thomas Jefferson
(Eng) Charles Burt
$5,000 Gold certificate (1870) James Madison
(Eng) Alfred Sealey
$100 Silver certificate (1891) James Monroe
(Eng) Luigi (Louis) Delnoce
$500 Legal Tender (1869) John Quincy Adams
(Eng) Charles Burt
$10,000 Gold certificate (1875) Andrew Jackson
(Eng) Alfred Sealey
$500 Gold certificate (1870) Abraham Lincoln
$5,000 4% Consol Bond (1877) Andrew Johnson
$20,000 U.S. Funded Loan Bond (1891) Zachary Taylor
$20 Legal Tender (1869) Alexander Hamilton
(Eng) Charles Burt
$0.50 Fractional currency Samuel Dexter
$0.50 Fractional currency William Crawford
(Eng) Charles Burt
$0.25 Fractional currency Robert Walker
(Eng) Charles Burt
$0.10 Fractional currency William Meredith
(Eng) Charles Burt
$20,000 4% Consol Bond (1877) Salmon P. Chase
$20 Silver certificate (1886) Daniel Manning
(Eng) Lorenzo Hatch
$2 Silver certificate (1891) William Windom
(Eng) William Phillips