Recently a couple from New York City visited us at the gallery. They were about to leave for a trip to Italy. The couple intended to visit their friend who is the new U.S. Ambassador at the Embassy in Rome. They wanted to present him with a special gift, so we suggested they focus on a piece of American history: a note of currency from the original 13 colonies. Using museum-grade glass and framing, we fitted this beautiful One Shilling Note from 1772. (For reference, this note is 2.5 x 3.5 inches.)
The couple wrote within a few days telling us that the Ambassador loved the piece. He immediately hung it in the grand foyer of the U.S. Embassy. The shilling note you see throughout this article is the very one hanging in that Embassy. But we have a few more in stock if you’d like to start collecting them. They are more affordable than you would think!
Keep in mind that this currency was printed four years prior to the 13 colonies establishing independence in 1776. This particular currency was for use in Pennsylvania. The other colonies had their own printed notes.
Fakes, Forgeries, and Fraud in the 13 Colonies
Rutgers University professor of English, Jack Lynch, has written and taught on subjects related to literature, including forgery, fakery, and fraud. In an article about the problem of counterfeiting in the 13 colonies during the 18th century, he opens with the modern U.S. practice of updating currency: “Such changes began before there was a Treasury Department—as historian David R. Johnson writes: “In the early eighteenth century, counterfeiting in America entered a kind of golden age that would last for roughly a hundred and fifty years.” And these were high-stake years, because phony money threatened to weaken confidence in the finances of the young nation. Without trust in the dollar, there could be no commerce; without commerce, there could be no country. The history of America’s money is largely a history of the struggle to keep a step ahead of the forgers.”
Lynch adds that counterfeiting was such a problem in early America that Benjamin Franklin devised a technique of printing in 1739 to deliberately prevent forging. In addition to signing the notes, Franklin began a series of printed currency that included detailed images of leaves. The leaves can be found on the currency from many of the original 13 colonies, including “the colonial and revolutionary bills of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Continental Congress,” says Lynch.
Note the leaf on the back of the shilling included here. Lynch addresses the intricacy and realism of the leaves, adding: “The images are remarkably realistic: as numismatic historian Eric P. Newman put it, Franklin realized that “leaves not only had exceedingly complex detail but also that their internal lines were graduated in thickness. This would make virtually impossible a fine reproduction by engraving.” As long as the technique could be kept secret, they would be as close to counterfeit-proof as anyone could hope for.”
The Art of Printing
One of the printers listed on this currency, David Hall, took over printing and publishing for Benjamin Franklin. According to the Benjamin Franklin Historical Society, Hall purchased the entire operation when Franklin became immersed in politics. Hall then created a new company that included William Sellers and became of the official currency printers of the 13 colonies.
Interestingly, Hall was born near Edinburgh, Scotland where he apprenticed at a printing firm for five years, beginning at age 15. Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, has a rich history in the printing industry.
Outside of London, Edinburgh was considered the center of publishing and printing for the United Kingdom. It was an honor and privilege to receive an apprenticeship of this nature in a place where the printing industry itself was rolling innovation off the presses. Armed with the latest and greatest techniques, Hall was a perfect replacement for Franklin’s own ingenuity in the world of printing.
To Counterfeit is Death
Lynch explains that a 1638 assembly declared counterfeiting as treasonable and punishable by death. But forgers and fakers found ways around this, so the laws were periodically updated. This is included a 1707 law “declaring that anyone convicted of forging foreign gold or silver would be pilloried, whipped, and have both ears cropped.” However, you can see by the close-up of the same shilling note, the death penalty was in play at least just prior to the 13 colonies declaring independence in 1776.
Do you want to start collecting colonial currency? Call us at 615-472-1980 for more information, including sizes, pricing, and affordable framing options.
Check our library of videos for one of the old techniques (stone lithography) still practiced by some today at Edinburgh Printmakers. Learn more about the history of printing on innovative Scotland. View the Coins and Currency collection in the online Colonial Williamsburg Exhibit. Take a look at this fascinating PDF published by the Valley Forge National Historical Park on Currency During the American Revolution.