Susan Bremer of Heritage published the first of a series of
articles about engraver, author and publisher W.L. Ormsby.
It appeared in the June 18, 2021 issue of the Heritage Currency News email.
Engraving, inventing, and writing are just a few of the endeavors that W.L. Ormsby has been known for. A complex man, whom some have observed had his head more in the clouds than his feet on the ground. He is one of the most famous and infamous names in banknote engraving. W. L Ormsby was and still is a conundrum of a man.
W. L. Ormsby was born September 9, 1809 in Hampton, Connecticut. Little is known about his early years, other than that he was apprenticed to an engraver in 1825. In 1829, he went to New York to hone his skills at the National Academy of Design. In the several years after graduation, he and his family moved to Albany and Rochester, New York where he engraved under his own name. Later he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Ormsby went to work for Carter, Andrews & Co.
Salt Lake City, UT- Drovers Bank Advertising Note $1
July 1, 1856 G6a Rust 85 Nyholm 142
By 1840, Ormsby and his family had returned to New York where he continued to engrave banknotes and to create plate engravings for the Columbian Magazine. Around this time, several important things happen in his life; he divorced his wife and bought the controlling shares in Columbia Magazine. He received high praise in the engraving community at this time and began writing pamphlets about the engraving of the banknotes. The first, published in 1852, was A Description of the Present System of Banknote Engraving, which offered intricate borders and other design elements that could be introduced for greater anti-counterfeiting measures. Ormsby was hopeful that he would be able to present his work to President Pierce. Unfortunately, this was not to be. He published another book on anti-counterfeiting with a more colorful title, Cycloidal Configurations, or the Harvest of Counterfeiters, in 1862.
Although Ormsby was a strong proponent of anti-counterfeiting, it would not save him from being accused of the very thing. Although never either convicted or vindicated in court, Ormsby spent tremendous amounts of money fighting the accusation. Although Ormsby suffered numerous setbacks such as the counterfeiting court case and the failure of Columbia Magazine, he continued to press forward, and in 1863 was one of the founders of the Continental Bank Note Co. Possibly due to the accusations of counterfeiting and his loose business practices, Ormsby's role as one of the founders of the CBNCo. was kept hidden until after his death in November, 1883.
Georgetown, DC - Potomac River Bank $2
Dec. 4, 1854 DC-140 G4. PCGS Choice About New 58PPQ
With many twists and turns, the story of W. L. Ormsby is one that is attention-grabbing. Having a definite opinion of the man becomes more difficult as historians move deeper into the details of his story. Was he a counterfeiter, despite publishing anti-counterfeiting books? Or was he simply misguided and misled? Whatever the answer, in next month's Engraver Spotlight article, we will continue to explore Ormsby's life, specifically, several of his unique and important inventions that enhanced the banknote and printing industries.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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