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The Birth of Educational Notes

by Ed McDonough (09/28/08).

1896 Series Currency:
About the time of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C. was beginning to plan a new issue of banknotes which would break from traditional currency design. Designs were submitted by artists of the time, the compositions of which were much different than any bank note before. The motifs were thoughtful, complex, ornate, and masterfully done. However, they were also controversial. As a result, the development of these new issues seemed to have taken more time than expected, after much debate and stalling in the Congress. The notes were finally released as The Series of 1896, electively known as “Educational Notes”. Today they are generally recognized as the most ornate, and to many the most attractive designs to have ever appeared on United States currency. The face designs featured beautiful scenes depicting great Americans and their achievements.

The one dollar educational note, 1896 series, face designed by Will H. Low, titled “History Instructing Youth, with the Constitution to the right and the Washington Monument in the background. On the back George and Martha Washington, George Washington, our first President (1789-1797), the only President to be unanimously elected as President who did not represent a political party. Our first President, born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, learned the morals, manner, and knowledge requisite for an 18th century Virginia gentleman. He was interested in military arts and western expansion. He was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in 1754. He fought skirmishes of what became the French and Indian War. As an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, he escaped injury although bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him. At the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, Washington managed his lands around Mount Vernon and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He married the widow, Martha Dandridge Custis.

As Washington felt exploited by British merchants and regulations, he moderately and firmly voiced his resistance to the restrictions. In 1775 Washington, one of the Virginia delegates in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Having taken charge of the ill-trained troops, Washington embarked upon six long, grueling years of war, falling back slowly then striking unexpectedly. Finally in 1781 with the aid of the French allies, he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, the new Constitution having been ratified, the electoral college unanimously elected Washington President.

The two-dollar note, the second note of the series, face depicting “Science Presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacturing”. The reverse shows images of Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse. Fulton (1765-1815) US engraver and inventor credited with the steamboat invention was exactly the man who put the design into practice. Fulton, son of Irish immigrants, constructed paddlewheels which he applied with success to a fishing boat. This was at the age of 13! Fulton was also a very fine artist, painting miniature portraits and landscapes, mechanical and architectural drawings and whatever came his way in artistic work.

After many inventions and patents for “Maritime Wartime Improvements and Means for Injuring and Destroying Ships and Vessels of War by igniting Gunpowder under Water“, he became recognized as a great innovator and received financial assistance which enabled his successful steamboat launch.

Samuel Morse (1791-1872), a graduate of Yale College class of 1810, was an artist and inventor who designed the first successful electromagnetic (magnetism by electricity). He was also an excellent artist and known for miniature portraits on ivory. He partially abandoned his artwork after losing the opportunity to paint the rotunda of the Capitol building, a commission he expected. His first message through his new found telegraph, or course, was “What hath God wrought” from the Supreme Court Room in the Capitol to the railway depot at Baltimore, Maryland in May 1844.

The five-dollar note, the third and last of the educational series, on the face showing an allegorical group showing “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World”. The back with images of Ulysses S. Grant and Philip Sheridan, Union Army Generals. U. S. Grant, the eighteenth President, established Yellowstone, our first national park in 1872. Grant, born in 1822, was a graduate of West Point and fought in the Mexican War under Gen. Zachary Taylor. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed by the Governor to command an unruly volunteer regiment. Grant got it into shape and by the autumn of 1861 had risen to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. In 1862 he took Fort Henry and attacked Fort Donelson. When the Confederate commander asked for terms, Grant replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The Confederates surrendered and President Lincoln promoted Grant to Major General of Volunteers. After his defeat of Vicksburg, thus weakening the Confederates immensely, he broke the Confederate hold on Chattanooga. Finally in April 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered.

Major General Philip Sheridan defeated the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan, himself also a graduate of West Point in 1853, served multiple posts in the infantry. General Grant placed Sheridan in command of the Army of the Potomac’s mounted arm. Sheridan had mixed success but did manage to mortally wound the Confederate cavalryman at Yellow Tavern. His Irish temperament brought him into conflict with many Generals. However his final role at Appomattox eclipsed that of most of those Generals. He had a great show of forceful role model but his severity always worked against him. At any rate he was made a full General and died in 1888, having been commander-in-chief of the Reconstruction government of Texas and Louisiana since 1884.

That which I enjoy most in the above mentioned paper money notes is not only its rich historical epic but the great detail and artwork that went into the design of the bills which when compared with our current day currency, is sadly lost .

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