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The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 7, February 17, 2008, Article 9

REVIEW: 100 GREATEST AMERICAN CURRENCY NOTES BY BOWERS AND SUNDMAN

We've had a lot of discussion about the recent '100
Greatest American Medals and Tokens' book by Katherine
Jaeger and Q. David Bowers.  This week I take a look at
an earlier title in the Whitman Publishing series, '100
Greatest American Currency Notes' by Q. David Bowers
and David Sundman.

Like the other books in the series, this title, published
in 2006, is a large coffee-table size hardbound with a
glossy printed dust jacket.  The notes are arranged in
order starting with #1, the $1,000 "Grand Watermelon"
note of 1890.  The first ten notes are given a two-page
spread; the remaining 90 are shown one per page.

The preface and introduction section packs two decades of
U.S. currency history into a readable and authoritative
twenty-page package.  Topics include early American paper
currency, obsolete bank notes, bank note engravers and
companies, the evolution of bank note design, classes of
Federal notes, Confederate notes, collecting and enjoying
paper money, grades of paper money, cleaning, preservation
and conservation, and forming a collection.

Although brief, this section is clearly a work of scholarship.
I've read a number of numismatic books written by dealers and
collectors who were enthusiasts of their topic, but not scholars,
and this showed in their writing.  Only true scholars of the
topic could have written such an all-encompassing introduction
to the topic, and my hat is off to the authors.  I'm hard
pressed to think of a better overview of the paper money hobby.

Before diving into the meat of the book, I thought I'd
discuss my expectations.  As a collector and student of U.S.
currency, my personal interests lean toward private issues.
Yet that field is so vast I wondered if the quantity of
available candidates would dilute the voting. Perhaps that's
what happened.  The book's subtitle ("The stories behind
the most fascinating colonial, Confederate, federal, obsolete,
and private American notes") gave me hope that the book would
cover much more than federal U.S. issues like the Watermelon
note on the cover.  But I was disappointed - only seven of
the top 50 and eleven of the top 100 notes were non-Federal
issues.  These felt like token inclusions, and I thought
the book would have been more satisfying if it had kept to
a single theme of Federal issues.   Still, I did enjoy the
few token non-Federal inclusions and hope they give the
casual reader a taste of what lies beyond.

If I were to pick my own favorites I'd start with a
tried-and-true choice - #7, the $1 Educational Note of 1896.
The "History Instructing Youth" vignette by Will H. Low is
a breathtaking classical design.  #11, the $2 Educational
Note is another exceptional classic design, this time by
Edwin Blashfield.

For historical importance as well as beauty of design I'd
choose #38, the $5 Demand Note of 1861.  The first
"Greenback" of the Federal Government, these notes were
intended to be hand-signed by the Treasurer and Secretary
of the Treasury.  Along with this note I'd have to choose
the companion $10 Demand Note of 1861 with its portrait
of President Abraham Lincoln (#60).

In keeping with the Civil War theme another favorite note
is #53, the $500 Confederate Montgomery note of 1861.  I
choose this one for historical importance as well as a
nice vignette and pleasant design.

The last note, #100, is one of my favorites as well - a
fifty cent "bond" issued by The Imperial Government of
Norton I.   Joshua Norton was a denizen of 19th century
San Francisco who declared himself to be "Emperor of the
United States and Protector of Mexico."  Always ready for
a good joke, the local newspaper published Norton's various
declarations and he became a celebrity known worldwide
in his day.

But so much for my favorites - what are yours?  That's the
fun of a book like this - people being people there is
certain to be controversy over which notes were included
and which were left out, as well as the rankings chosen by
the participating experts.

One typo I discovered appeared in the credits where the
authors thanked the "American Numismatic Library" rather
than the American Numismatic Association library.  I have
few other nits to pick on the author's text, although I
wish they had devoted some space to the back design of
the 1914 $100 Federal Reserve Note (#34).  The allegorical
image is stunning in its apparent simplicity, looking at
first glance like a simple outline sketch, yet revealing
great detail on closer examination.  The figures look
like white marble statues, and I've always found this
design fascinating.

In all this is a very satisfying book, although I'll admit
to enjoying it less than the token and medal volume.  This
is partly due to my own collecting interests, but also due
to the fact that the Federal notes have all been pictured
and described before.  Reading the token and medal book I
found myself excited to discover items I'd never seen before
every ten pages or so; I did not have the same feeling with
this book, but that's not the fault of the authors (or the
material).   It's a great book to have handy and quite
useful for introducing friends to the hobby of paper money
collecting.

The book is available from the publisher at $29.95.
whitmanbooks.com

 NEW BOOK: '100 GREATEST AMERICAN MEDALS AND TOKENS'
 esylum_v10n40a08.html

 BOOK REVIEWS: 100 GREATEST AMERICAN MEDALS AND TOKENS BY JAEGER AND BOWERS
 esylum_v10n47a05.html

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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