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The announcement that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill surprised many people, in no small part because so few changes have been made to federal currency in the modern era. But the images on our cash have not always been so stable.

The Historic New Orleans Collection’s (THNOC) exhibit Money, Money, Money! Currency Holdings from The Historic New Orleans Collection reminds visitors that, prior to the Civil War, American currency was varied, diverse, and could change appearance when least expected.

The exhibit, which runs until Oct 29, is sourced solely from THNOC’s holdings – nothing is on loan from other museums. Visitors can examine over 200 hundred original objects, ranging from coins to printing plates to paper currency to counterfeit detectors. A special emphasis is placed on the history of money in Louisiana.

“The appeal is to understand that we (the United States) have not always had a unified currency,” said Erin Greenwald, curator and historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection. “There was this crazy patchwork solution before the Civil War of thousands of bank notes from hundreds of banks circulating in the American economy.”

Confederate States of America $100 note.

Bienville Parish fifty-cent note; June 19, 1862.

US one-dollar legal tender note; 1862.

Prior to the Civil War, small denomination coinage from one of the five US mints was the only unified American currency. But this was problematic on multiple levels. First, large amounts of coins are heavy and hard to carry or transport.

Second, the United States would never have enough gold and silver to meet the demands of the populace. So, the government looked the other way while states made their own paper currency.

New Orleans in the 19th century was a center of trading, commerce and banking. For a time, what we know as the city of New Orleans was divided into three different municipalities, all of which manufactured their own currency.

There was this crazy patchwork solution before the Civil War of thousands of bank notes from hundreds of banks circulating in the American economy. Erin Greenwald, curator and historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection

For Americans, traveling from state to state was an experience not unlike visiting foreign countries today. A traveler from Louisiana visiting St. Louis would have to visit a bank and exchange money. The farther a person strayed from the source of their currency, the more devalued it became.

The system was rife with inconvenience. A bank in Missouri would have to physically send someone to Louisiana to cash out any Louisiana notes they had received. Also, the likelihood of counterfeiting increased the farther a customer strayed from a currency’s source; in the above example, the hypothetical Missouri bank would be skeptical about receiving Louisiana money.

Counterfeiting was rampant in the pre-Civil War era. Because so many different banks issued their own currency, it was harder for tellers to know the intricacies of all of the forms of paper money. Counterfeit detection guides circulated, tipping off tellers to red flags. However, these guides also told counterfeiters what banks were on the lookout for, so criminals would just make adjustments accordingly.

Some of the counterfeit money of the time was exceedingly elaborate, but one false bill on display in the exhibit spells “Dollars” as “Dollas.” Not all counterfeits were created equal.

Greenwald said that during the Civil War, anyone who could print money, did. States printed and circulated currency, but it didn’t stop there. In Louisiana, 40 of the state’s 48 parishes printed their own money.

The quality varied wildly. Some had intricate artwork; others looked more like a ticket someone could get out of a skee-ball machine. This untenable situation came to an end during the Civil War, when Congress passed legislation (the National Banking Acts) to create a legitimate, unified paper currency for the country.

To keep things fun and interactive, the THNOC offers “Banknote Bingo” cards for visitors. A person skimming the exhibit might miss some of the designs on the currency, but the bingo game encourages people to look at the notes more closely and check off items they see on the card.

Some bingo options include the steamboat Natchez, a woman riding a reindeer, a mermaid and a merman, a dog with a key to the city, and the St. Louis Cathedral.

Money, Money, Money! runs until October 29th at the The Historic New Orleans Collection on 410 Chartres St. The museum is free and open to the public. The gallery’s hours are Tues-Sat from 9:30am to 4:30pm.

Our Local Publisher Partners

The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

WWNO

WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

WWOZ

WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

PRC

Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

NOMA

As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

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