A $5 “brown back” national bank note from 1882 just sold for an eye-popping $101,790, according to Bonhams.
The bill barely resembles the kind of money that is printed today. In fact, the bill is a relic from an era when there were more than 8,000 different kinds of money in the United States.
A podcast this week by NPR’s “Planet Money” dove into the currency crazy world of pre-Civil War America.
Before to U.S. nationalized its currency, the American money system was flooded with a seemingly infinite number of currencies, from state banknotes to local banknotes and different forms of change. There were bills adorned with Confederate heroes. Even Santa Claus made a cameo appearance on a Boston banknote.
Each banknote served as an IOU of sorts and was either used to pay for goods and services or was turned in to a bank for its value in gold or silver. The trouble was that it became hard to tell how much you’d get for your Kentucky money in Tennessee and so on as you traveled. The value assigned to a bill was often subject to interpretation, causing many bills to be deemed worthless altogether.
Due to rising counterfeiting issues and the exorbitant cost of the Civil War, the currency craziness slowed. In order to pay for weapons and provide payment to soldiers, the government began printing paper money known as greenbacks, money had a tendency to change in value depending on what side was winning the Civil War. By the time the war ended, greenbacks and national bank notes — which all began to look alike — started to converge.
NPR’s podcast (which you can listen to here) coupled with the sale of the $5 “brown back” encouraged us to dig around for some of America’s most eclectic antique money.