Abstract: The Political Economy of Making Money: Quality and Control in National Bank Note Production, 1863-1877

Franklin Noll


National Bank notes have been studied for many years—how they came to be, how they affected monetary history, etc. But no one has studied how they came actually to be printed and made real objects. The political economy of note production was an odd amalgam as concerns over the attractiveness and authenticity of the note were intertwined with desires for control and profit. The engagement of these various factors is seen most clearly between the years 1863 and 1877, when it was not entirely clear who had control over the printing and circulation of National Bank notes. During this period the upholding of quality standards for National Bank notes was repeatedly invoked as a way to get control of the national currency for political or financial reasons. Thus, in 1863, Comptroller of the Currency Hugh McCulloch fought with the Treasury over who would control note production by arguing that his private printers would produce a higher-quality note than the printers inside the Treasury. The Comptroller's office later gained a better method of note redemption by appealing to Congress's concern over the cleanliness of notes in circulation. Lastly, the Treasury and the bank note companies used arguments of aesthetics and currency authenticity as weapons in a battle over who would produce National Bank notes in the 1870s.