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Martha Washington's Note
martha washington noteBy Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
July 22, 2008
martha washington note

Collectors call it the "Martha" note because it pictures Martha Washington, the only real-life woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The large-size Series 1886 note was the first in a long line of $1 Silver Certificates.

A revised version of the design appeared in 1891 with a new reverse, but in 1896 the "Martha" gave way to the $1 Educational Series note. This time Martha Washington was pictured on the back of the Silver Certificate, along with her husband George.

Silver Certificates were authorized by congressional acts of Feb. 28, 1878, and Aug. 4, 1886. Redeemable on demand for silver dollars, they seemed to be a good idea. In the 1898 edition of The History of Bimetallism in the United States, J. Laurence Laughlin explained:

"The Act of 1878…introduced a new kind of paper money into our currency. Whatever objection may be urged against the use of silver dollars, owing to their heaviness and bulk, it has been largely removed by the provision for silver certificates. Any owner of not less than ten silver dollars may deposit the same with any Assistant Treasurer of the United States and receive therefor certificates, which 'shall be receivable for customs, taxes, and all public dues, and, when so received, may be reissued.'

"It is to be noted that silver certificates are not a full legal tender for all debts, 'public and private,' as silver dollars are. But in practice certificates are received equally with silver dollars; because, if refused, the holder can readily obtain silver dollars. To be forced to receive silver-dollar pieces would be more annoying than the immediate acceptance of certificates, even though they are not legal tender. If it were not for these certificates no great amount of silver could be kept in circulation. It will be seen…that the silver-dollar pieces actually in circulation cannot be forced above a certain amount (the highest sum ever reached being $67,248,357 in November 1890). The line of total silver circulation includes the larger sum of certificates and Treasury notes as well as the silver dollars themselves."

The use of silver dollars to back Silver Certificates resulted in a large disparity between the number of silver dollars struck and the number actually issued. In his annual report for the year that ended June 30, 1886, the Mint director wrote:

"It will be noticed that during the fiscal year 30,250,000 silver dollars were transferred from the coinage mints to the Treasury of the United States, and that there were actually paid out at the mints to individuals 11,361,979. Owing to the very large amount transferred to the Treasury of the United States, the balance of silver dollars at the mints has, notwithstanding the coinage, been decreased during the year, being $50,482,787 on June 30, 1886, against $62,255,861 on June 30, 1885."

The notes' lack of direct legal tender status was a sore point for some critics. The Aug. 19, 1886, issue of the Galveston Daily News called the Martha Washington $1 Silver Certificate "an insult to the memory of the Washington family." After all, the newspaper claimed, it was George Washington who said, "I cannot tell a lie." But by their very nature, Silver Certificates were dishonest. Not only did they lack direct legal tender status, but the silver dollars for which they could be redeemed contained less than a dollar's worth of silver.

President Grover Cleveland was well aware of the situation. In December 1886, in his second annual State of the Union message, he wrote:

"The Director of the Mint reports that at the time of the passage of the law of 1878 directing this coinage the intrinsic value of the dollars thus coined was 94 1/4 cents each, and that on the 31st day of July, 1886, the price of silver reached the lowest stage ever known, so that the intrinsic or bullion price of our standard silver dollar at that date was less than 72 cents. The price of silver on the 30th day of November last was such as to make these dollars intrinsically worth 78 cents each.

"These differences in value of the coins represent the fluctuations in the price of silver, and they certainly do not indicate that compulsory coinage by the Government enhances the price of that commodity or secures uniformity in its value.

"Every fair and legal effort has been made by the Treasury Department to distribute this currency among the people. The withdrawal of United States Treasury notes of small denominations and the issuing of small silver certificates have been resorted to in the endeavor to accomplish this result, in obedience to the will and sentiments of the representatives of the people in the Congress. On the 27th day of November, 1886, the people held of these coins, or certificates representing them, the nominal sum of $166,873,041, and we still had $79,464,345 in the Treasury as against about $142,894,055 or so in the hands of the people and $72,865,376 remaining in the Treasury one year ago."

Despite the debate about Silver Certificates and silver dollars in general, there could be no complaining about the artwork on the Series 1886 $1 Silver Certificate. Bureau of Engraving and Printing artist Joseph Ourdan designed the note, according to the Dec. 5, 1940, issue of the Sheboygan Press.

Work on the design was under way in the summer of 1886 and continued for several months. "It is learned at the Treasury Department that the new Silver Certificates authorized at the last session of Congress will not be ready for issue before November," the Aug. 17, 1886, issue of the Galveston Daily News said. "The $1 certificate contains a vignette of Martha Washington."

In a similar vein, the Aug. 7 issue of the Stevens Point Gazette reported, "The new silver certificate of the denomination of one dollar will bear a copy of the [Gilbert] Stuart portrait of Martha Washington."

The portrait is the only existing likeness of Martha Washington by Stuart. He painted it in 1796, along with a companion portrait of George Washington. They are known as the "Athenaeum portraits" because the Boston Athenaeum owned them for more than 150 years.

Stuart deliberately left the portraits unfinished so he would not have to deliver them to the Washingtons. The portrait of George Washington in particular proved to be a steady source of cash for Stuart, who made and sold many copies. Stuart kept both of the original paintings until his death. Today the Martha Washington portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution. It is owned jointly with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ironically, Martha's bonnet nearly stole the show. "Persons fortunate enough to possess a one-dollar Silver Certificate have an excellent picture of Martha Washington, the wife of the Father of His Country," the Feb. 20, 1901, issue of the Indiana Democrat said. "The becoming headdress which Mrs. Washington wore when she sat for the portrait from which the copy is made is in the possession of Mrs. Hortensia Hardesty McIntire, the wife of congressman William C. McIntire."

The first Martha Washington $1 Silver Certificates were released in the fall of 1886. The Indiana Weekly Messenger seemed to like the new note. The Nov. 10, 1886, issue of the newspaper said, "The adoption of the vignette of Martha Washington for the one dollar Silver Certificate was an innovation."

The Oct. 28 issue of the Atlanta Constitution praised the new note and took artistic license when it made Martha Washington the equivalent of a pin-up girl:

"The People have had for a long time with them the dollars of our daddies [a popular term for older silver dollars], but the government has at last furnished item with the dollar of our mummy. The new issue of one dollar bill is very pretty; the most striking thing about it is the portrait of Mrs. Martha Washington, and as this is the first bill issued by our government bearing a female portrait the boys are all stuck on it."

The boys weren't the only ones "stuck" on the new note. The April 5, 1888, issue of the Decatur Daily Republican reported that "the most cleverly raised note ever seen in the Treasury Department" had been seized in the South. On this $1 Silver Certificate, the portrait of Dexter, former Treasury secretary, had been cut from a 50-cent Fractional Currency note and pasted over the portrait of Martha Washington. The numerals 50 and the word "Fifty" were also cut from the fractional note to transform the $1 Silver Certificate into a $50 note.

A different type of counterfeit of he Series 1886 $1 Silver Certificate was described in the July 23, 1888, issue of the Newark Daily Advocate:

"Its general appearance in very good, but the vignette of Martha Washington is very course and scratchy. The words 'United States' have the appearance of being produced by a wood cut, and the shading is very coarse. The back of the note at first glance looks remarkably well, but upon inspection [there are] numerous defects."

Possibly the bogus note was of the same type described in the July 26, 1888, issue of The [Frederick, Md.] News, which said that a "dangerous counterfeit" of the $1 Silver Certificate had been made and placed in circulation. "It is perfect in details and only a fraction of an inch longer than the Treasury plate. It, however, is deficient in execution and need deceive no one who will give it inspection. The vignette of Martha Washington and the shading in the words 'United States' on the face are coarsely engraved."

The ornate engraving on the genuine Martha Washington Silver Certificate was intended to deter counterfeiters, but the design was so cluttered it created confusion with other denominations. A major design change was made on the back of the Series 1891 $1 Silver Certificate, with the fancy engraving replaced with a more open design. The makeover was not entirely successful, judging from the following item in the Sept. 23, 1891, issue of the Newark Daily Advocate:

"The most expert piece of note raising ever attempted has been received at the Treasury Department from Denver. It is in the form of a dollar Silver Certificate, with the Martha Washington portrait, raised to a national bank note. When the great difference in the designs on the two notes is taken into consideration, the work of the note raiser is indeed remarkable, and cannot be detected without the closest scrutiny."

Another raised Martha Washington note turned up in Georgia. "Someone passed a Martha Washington $1 Silver Certificate on Charles Dreteen last evening for $10," the May 23, 1894, issue of the Decatur Daily Republican reported. "The party had added a cipher to all the figure 1's in sight but had forgotten the small 'one dollars' along the edge." The person who passed the note received $9.90 in change for a 10-cent purchase.

The Series 1896 $1 Educational Series note that replaced the "Martha" was supposed to be the most artistic paper money ever put in circulation. But the original rendition of Martha Washington on the Series 1886 and Series 1891 $1 Silver Certificates kept people talking for years. To this day she is the only real-life woman whose portrait has starred on a U.S. paper money.

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