The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 40, October 7, 2007, Article 4


[Richard Doty of the National Numismatic Collection at the
Smithsonian Institution forwarded the following review of
a new book on the history of counterfeiting in the U.S.

'A Nation of Counterfeiters:  Capitalists, Con Men, and the
Making of the United States', by Stephen Mihm (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2007), $29.95.

The Smithsonian Institution has approximately fifteen
thousand “obsolete notes” – currency issued by private
banks and other entities between 1790 and 1865.  I have
been working with this collection for more than two decades,
have written one book, part of another, and more than two
dozen articles about it.  I love obsoletes.  They are
historical, whimsical, very often beautiful – and sometimes
suspect.  Approximately twenty percent of our notes are
bogus in one way or another:  fakes of real notes from real
banks;  pieces from nonexistent banks or bearing designs
never employed by legitimate banks;  altered bills (whose
names and places of issue were erased, then replaced by
new ones);  and raised notes (whose original denominations
were excised, then augmented).

One in five pieces of paper:  if the proportion of fakes
in our collection is borne out by the evidence of other
private and public holdings, then the nature of the nineteenth-
century American economic miracle begs closer scrutiny.  Did
people at the time realize how many fakes were in circulation?
Did they care?  How could they tell good notes from bad?
What were the roles of the federal and state governments
in all of this?  What were the boundaries between genuine
and fake?  Were they hard and fast, as they are at present?
Or were they porous, at times even nonexistent?  At bottom,
what did nineteenth-century Americans expect from their money?

Stephen Mihm’s 'A Nation of Counterfeiters' goes far towards
answering these and many other questions.

Anyone interested in obsolete notes quickly becomes aware
of the fakery and flimflam surrounding them – they’re part
of a collective legend and heritage.  But Mihm explains
in detail how it all came about, in a fast-paced, well-written
narrative featuring a cast of characters ranging from dapper
and not-so-dapper crooks, forgers, bunko artists and
corruptible policeman to bemused bankers, starving and
not-so-starving artists – and the ordinary men and women
who put up with and sometimes profited by the monetary
chaos surrounding them.  His tale embraces an entire continent,
from Connecticut to California, and his characters and their
wares march in lock step with a larger movement of people,
goods, and skills from one coast to the other.

As I said, I’ve worked with this material for many years.
But Mihm has delved far more deeply than I, in search of
different themes; he has emerged with some truly amazing
information.  For example, there was a vibrant, enduring
counterfeit connection between New England and Upper and
Lower Canada:  many of the early forgers straddled both
sides of a very porous border, posing a headache for
understaffed authorities on both sides of an ill-defined line.

Moreover, the ubiquitous counterfeit and forgery protectors
hawked everywhere at mid-century may have caused more harm
than good:  they weren’t all that helpful – except to forgers,
who now knew what to emulate and what to avoid.  Most
importantly, Mihm penetrates deeply into the nature of
“real” and fake money, how the two can sometimes be melded
together in the popular imagination, so that anything, as
long as it circulates, as long as someone, somewhere,
accepts it and passes it on, is just as useful and good
as anything else.  Some of us had wondered whether this
might have been the case;  Mihm has confirmed it.

His book concludes with the shift from private notes to
public paper – the new federal currency brought about by
the fiscal exigencies of the Civil War.  The advent of
the new money altered perceptions of counterfeiting on
the part of individuals and their national government.
Before, paper currency was a commercial convenience;
now, it was something more, a symbol of the nation itself.
And while forgery was an unavoidable evil in the first
instance, it was an intolerable affront in the second.

This is the finest, most readable account of its kind you
are ever likely to see.  I congratulate Stephen Mihm on an
extraordinary accomplishment, and I wholeheartedly recommend
his book to hobbyist and historian alike.

[I ordered a hardcover copy from Amazon for $19.77.

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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