Fractional Currency--A Primer

Fractional currencywas issued during and after the U.S. Civil War due to the hoarding and shortage of gold, silver and copper coins.  It was printed in five issues in denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cents.  The notes were printed from August 21, 1862, until February 15, 1876.  The first issue of fractional currency was authorized by Congress in the summer of 1862 and signed into law on July 17, 1862. It is called Postage Currency since these notes had as their central vignette the five and ten-cent stamps of the day. They were issued in 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent denominations.

A year later, July 11, 1863, the Treasury Department began printing its own notes. George Washington was chosen for the portrait of the note to show patriotism during the war.  It has as a background, a dock scene which was engraved by James Duthie. The front of all four denominations, 5, 10, 25, and 50 cents, all have the same design and a bronze oval centered around Washington's image.   The oval was an anti-counterfeiting device so that if photographic reproduction was done, that area would appear black.  While all the fronts were the same, the backs of each denomination had its’ denomination in large bronze skeletal numbers (again an anti-counterfeiting device) and its’ own color scheme.  Five cent notes were brown, ten cent green, twenty-five cent purple and fifty cent red. Some of the notes had smaller bronze skeletal surcharges in the upper and/or lower corners, probably denoting different experiments in paper types, printing types and ink types. 

Counterfeiters struck and caused the printing of the third issue notes.  Printing started December 5, 1864 and lasted until August 16, 1869.  This issue had the smallest note printed by the government in both size and denomination, the three-cent note.  The backs of the five to fifty cent notes were either green or red with the red being the first printed.  Also, the ten, twenty-five and fifty cent notes had either printed signatures or actual hand signed signatures.  Surcharges also appeared on some of the twenty-five and fifty cent notes and all sheets had position indicators placed on the front except for the three-cent notes. Because of these additional printing measures, there are over 78 different varieties of notes in the third.  There are two varieties of the three cent note. It was printed with a light or dark background behind Washington. There is a sub variety that has "no pearls" beneath the diamond under the portrait.  The five cent note has four different varieties due to the two different colors of the back (red and green) and some having the sheet position indicator 'a' on the left side. Sheet indicators were placed only on the notes on the left side of the sheet. The five cent note has the portrait of Spencer Clark on the front of the note. He was the first director of the BEP and had full permission to put his portrait on the note, but did not sell out his bosses (Spinner and McCulloch) and was their scapegoat.  This was a very controversial act and it didn't sit well with Congress. Because of this, a law was passed stating that no living person may be depicted on any form of US currency.

The ten cent notes also have the sheet indicator letter on them and they also come with red or green backs. These notes were also the first to have printed and hand signed signatures on them. There are seven different varieties for this denomination. Interestingly, these notes do not have the word cents on them. Some people tried to pass them off a ten dollar notes much like the “no cents-Racketeer” shield nickels.

The twenty-five cent notes have the portrait of William Pitt Fessenden, former Secretary of the Treasury.   This denomination also had red and green backs.  The notes all have a bronze filigree on the front in outline form but a few have solid bronzing.   The position indicator 'a' was also used on the Fessenden notes and is found on the left side of Colby's signature. One printing plate had a different position for the 'a'. It is 7mm to the right, twice as large and found beneath Colby's signature.

The Justice note was the first of the fifty cent notes printed. These notes were issued starting on December 5th, 1864. The first note was the FR1357 and it may have been an experimental printing since only 3060 of these notes were printed. It was printed on fiber paper and has hand signed signatures of Colby/Spinner. The 'S-2-6-4' bronze surcharges were used on its red back. Green back notes followed the red backs.  Position indicator number '1' and letter 'a' were used on both the Justice and Spinner notes. In a sheet layout, the letter 'a' was used in the left column of notes and the number '1' depicted notes in the top horizontal row. There is only one note on each sheet that had a combination of both positional indicators of '1 and a' and it is found in the top left note.

When counterfeiting of the Justice series became a problem, a new fifty-cent note with the portrait of Spinner was done. The red backs were printed first. The first to be printed was the FR1328 with the hand signed Colby/Spinner autographs and then the Allison/Spinner signature notes. The Allison/New note, FR1330, was the third note in the Spinner series and most of these notes were thought to be presentation notes with most of them being uncirculated.  A redesigned “fancy” green back was also done for the Spinner notes and were printed between May 27, 1868 and April 15, 1869 and were the last notes of the third issue to be printed.

Many anti-counterfeiting measures were added to the fractional notes of the fourth and fifth issues. The first use of a Treasury Seal was done on the front of the notes and all of the notes had printed signatures for added security.

Fourth issue notes were printed between July 14, 1869 and Feb. 16, 1875. The ten cent note is the most common in the series with four separate varieties. This series has the only fifteen cent notes that circulated (the Grant/Spinner fifteen-cent notes of the third issue exist only as specimens and were never released for circulation). The fifteen-cent notes of the fourth issue have the bust of Columbia as its’ central vignette.  The twenty-five cent notes have Washington again as their central vignette and has a small or large red seal.  There are three different fifty cent notes.  They had the portraits of Lincoln, Stanton and Dexter. The Lincoln note was produced first and was issued from July, 1869 to December, 1869. This issue was short lived because a large quantity of good counterfeit were produced.  It was replaced with Stanton notes and were printed from January, 1870 to September, 1873. Counterfeiters again duplicated these notes at a fast pace so Dexter notes, printed from Aug. 3, 1873 to Feb. 16, 1874 finished the series.

The fifth and last issue was probably unnecessary as by the time they were printed, coins were no longer in short supply.  The issue consists of ten, twenty-five and fifty cent notes and were printed from Feb. 26, 1874 to Feb 15, 1876. The ten cent note has William Meredith's portrait and has either a green seal or a red seal.  The green seal notes were issued first. The two red seal notes are distinguished by the length of the key used in the seal. The short stubby key is 4 mm long and the thin long key is 5 mm in length. The twenty-five cent note used Robert Walker's vignette.  It also has two varieties, again the short key and the long key variety. The last note in this series and in fractional currency was the fifty cent note with the portrait of Crawford which was printed from July, 1875 to February 1876. These notes are often referred to as “Bob Hope” notes due to the likeness of Crawford favoring Mr. Hope. 

Fractional Currency