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Silver Certificates Dominated $1s
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
March 25, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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It has probably been a long time since you received a Silver Certificate in change. Perhaps you are too young to even remember them. Nowadays the blue ink of the Treasury seal and serial numbers looks shockingly different from the green ink of the Federal Reserve Notes used today, but in their heyday Silver Certificates were mostly treated just like generic money.

Up until 1963 virtually all Americans knew of no other small-size $1 bill than the familiar blue seals and serial numbers seen on the $1 Silver Certificate. Then in just a matter of a few years the Silver Certificate and its most frequently encountered denomination, the $1, was gone and an era had ended.

Redemption in silver ended June 24, 1968. Many people saved the unredeemed notes that they found in circulation thinking they would someday be rare and valuable.

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The story of the $1 Silver Certificate is truly an interesting story and by assembling a collection of large and small $1 Silver Certificates you can have a great collection while learning the story of one of the most interesting of all notes ever issued by the United States, the $1 Silver Certificate.

It would be safe to suggest that the Silver Certificate was every bit as much a result of the vast wealth of silver in the Comstock Lode as the Morgan dollar and in fact, the two are very closely related. To understand the story we have to go back to the Wild West and the Comstock Lode. The silver discovered in Nevada was a great boon for the local economy but it was also a fragile one as the silver was one of the largest discoveries in history. That depressed the price of silver and that in turn threatened the profits of those who owned the mines.

The burning question of the day was what to do with all that silver and there were an assortment of ideas that seemed to involve using the government to purchase the silver. There was first an attempt at a Trade dollar in 1873 to export the surplus metal to China, where it was prized. That worked for a couple years to a limited degree, but the Trade dollar was never accepted in the way some had hoped (the Mexican 8-reales later called the peso dominated the marketplace in China.

Once the Trade dollar’s legal-tender status was revoked, the Trade dollar became a real problem in domestic circulation as they were trading at less than their face value, which caused some who accepted them as a dollar to lose money.

There were other ideas to sop up silver supplied like a 20-cent piece. That worked for about six months before people started confusing them with quarters. In addition the 20-cent piece was never going to use enough silver to help with the problem.

At about the time the 20-cent piece failed there was the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 that called for the purchase of millions of ounces of silver each month that would be used to make silver dollars. These became the famous Morgan silver dollars.

It was almost a case of if at first you don’t succeed, try something even bigger. The United States had no particular use for millions and millions of silver dollars, but that really did not matter to those supporting the Bland-Allison Act as the purpose was not really to have people using silver dollars. The purpose was simply to have the government buy the excess silver and coin it into money. What happened to the silver dollars after that was of no great concern to the mining interests.

The way the great silver buying experiment worked is that the government bought the silver and then made the silver dollars, which in turn were used as backing for Silver Certificates which were first authorized in legislation passed on Feb. 28, 1878. Later legislation passed on Aug. 4, 1886 helped push Silver Certificates out into wider circulation in denominations as low as $1.

Since there was an enormous amount of silver it should not be too surprising that the first Series 1878 and 1880 Silver Certificates were in higher denominations of from $10-$1,000. With time, however, it was apparent that more use of Silver Certificates was needed and that meant lower denominations.

The first $1 Silver Certificate appeared as part of the Series 1886. It was a very interesting note that featured Martha Washington as part of its face design from a Jalabert painting engraved by Charles Burt. The use of Martha Washington was significant as it marked the first time an American woman was used on a federal note as the only prior use of women had been on broken bank notes and issues of the Confederate States of America.

Realistically the Series 1886 $1 as well as the Series 1891 which still used Martha Washington but which had a different back design are available to collectors today with the most available example of the Series 1886 in fine being roughly $250 while a Series 1891 in the same grade is $275. In Gem Crisp Uncirculated 65 a Series 1886 would currently cost roughly $2,700 while a Series 1891 is $2,600. In every case the price listings can hide the true scarcity of the notes. The Series 1886 has a number of signature and seal combinations and many are tough especially in upper grades.

The CU population of brown seal Rosecrans-Nebeker Series 1886 $1 notes is currently put at less than 20 pieces and similar totals for others are routine. In the case of the Series 1891 there are only two signature combinations with the Rosecrans-Nebeker combination having fewer than 100 known examples.

There are supplies of the Series 1896 $1 Silver Certificate but they are never enough to meet the demand as the $1 Series 1896 ranks as one of the most popular of all notes of the United States. The $1 Series 1896 Silver Certificate is part of the famous “Educational Series” and features a face design of “History Instructing Youth,” which was done by Will H. Low and was engraved by Charles Schlecht. The note has an allegorical scene along with the Washington Monument and Capitol in the background while names of great Americans are found in wreaths around the border. The back is also worth noting as it features portraits of Martha and George Washington with the Martha Washington being basically the same as used on the earlier series while the George Washington portrait was engraved by Alfred Sealey.

The Series 1896 $1 Silver Certificate is currently priced at about $325 in fine and $3,000 in Gem CU 65. There are two signature combinations although in this case the big goal of most is to simply acquire a type example. Naturally, because the design is so popular because of it’s artistic qualities there is enormous pressure on the supply of top grade examples and that continues to keep prices high.

The Series 1896 was followed by the Series 1899, which while popular is not quite in the same class as the 1896. The face design of the Series 1899 features a large eagle over the heads of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant in an engraving effort by G.F.C. Smillie. With a significant number of signature combinations the Series 1899 could well be a collection by itself. The most available of the examples are currently priced at just $100 in fine and $425 in Gem CU 65, but there are a number like those with a Napier-Thompson signature combination that command premiums.

The final type of large-size $1 Silver Certificate is the Series 1923. The Series 1923 has an interesting design for a different reason as you can see clearly in the Washington face design the sign of things to come as the same design is basically still in use (but the present notes are smaller than the 7-3/8ths by 3-1/8th inches of the large-size notes). While the notes would change in wording and other aspects the Series 1923 $1 Silver Certificate is clearly a transitional note.

At the time the era of large-size notes was coming to an end in 1929, the $1 Silver Certificate was certainly important, but it was hardly the only $1 note in circulation. There were $1 United States Notes and $1 Federal Reserve Bank Notes circulating in some numbers. Although certainly not as numerous it cannot be ruled out that in drawers and other safe places Americans would have been holding other issues such as $1 Coin Notes or even $1 National Bank Notes.

The situation would change dramatically with the introduction of small-size notes. By that time, the legislation requiring silver purchases had long since expired and officials appear to have made a conscious decision to reduce the role of the Silver Certificate. The Silver Certificate was not alone as in small-size National Bank Notes would be reduced in importance as the system was coming to an end. United States Notes would also be limited in terms of denominations while the emergency Federal Reserve Bank Note would not be issued initially at all while the role of the Federal Reserve Note would be expanded.

The reduced role of the Silver Certificate still included the $1, $5 and $10 denominations. The $1 Silver Certificate was basically given the exclusive claim to that denomination until 1963 with the small exception of a printing of less than 2 million Series 1928 $1 United States Notes. The whole idea of changing the size of notes had been a long time in the works as the first study of the matter had been made in the Taft Administration, which left office in 1913, but for a variety of reasons action on changing sizes was delayed. In 1925 a different Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, appointed a committee to study how to implement the change, which as it turned out, involved more than size reduction but also making the designs of denominations more uniform and other items. Mellon accepted the report of his committee and ordered the change to begin in May of 1927 with the first of the new small-size notes being released July 10, 1929.

Although there would later be $5 and $10 small-size Silver Certificates they were brought about as emergency issues brought on by the Great Depression. Then they remained for 30 years.

At least initially with the advent of small-size notes (the current size), the only small-size Silver Certificate would be the $1, but of course as the lowest denomination bank note the $1 Silver Certificate would be the note most often encountered by most Americans.

The initial printing of the Series 1928 $1 Silver Certificate was more than 638 million pieces. The $1 United States Note even with its printing of less than 2 million pieces only 5,000 of the total would be released, meaning there is no doubt that the small-size $1 note of the United States was expected to be the Silver Certificate.

With such a large printing, the Series 1928 $1 Silver Certificate is an historical note but one that is relatively available. The Series 1928 is currently priced at $125 in Gem CU 65 with a star replacement note being $875. For such a historical note, they are good prices and that is the case for many $1 Silver Certificates especially starting with a later series like the Series 1935.

The $1 Silver Certificates break down into a couple of groups. The first are the earlier series prior to the back design change, which took place with the Series 1935, and it is this first group where the majority of the better notes are found. One of the better notes is the Series 1928C where a regular note is roughly $1,250 in Gem CU 65. The reason is simple in that the printing was just 5,364,348. While a regular Series 1928C is tough, a star replacement note from the Series 1928C is extremely tough with a current listing of $8,000 in XF and $45,000 in Gem CU 65.

The Series 1928D with a Julian-Woodin signature combination followed with a printing of nearly 14.5 million, which made it tough as well, with a Gem CU 65 currently priced at roughly $700 while a star replacement note is $10,000 in XF and $61,000 in Gem CU 65.

In fine condition, the 1928D is just $60, though collectors really don’t catch a break with the star as it is $5,000 in fine.

The lowest printing of the early notes came next in the form of the Series 1928E which had a printing of 3,519,324. The Series 1928E starts at $1,100 in XF and reaches $2,550 for a Gem CU 65. In the case of star replacement notes the Series 1928E is extremely tough as is seen by a $145,000 Gem CU 65 price.

The Series 1934 at $175 in Gem CU 65 reflects a much larger printing than the others and a greater number available in top grades. It along with the Series 1935 with the new back design make for an excellent pair at just over $125 in Gem CU 65. The star replacement notes for these dates are much higher at $1,380 and $750 in the same grade.

After the Series 1935 prices generally become more reasonable. The Series 1935B with a Julian-Vinson signature combination is one exception with a Gem CU 65 star today at $500. In the case of regular notes many in Gem CU 65 are under $50.

The low cost of some $1 Silver Certificates can mask the fact that some are very interesting notes such as the Series 1957. The Series 1957 or a star of the series are not very expensive but they are historical as the Series 1957 carries IN GOD WE TRUST on the back thanks to Public Law 140 which was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 11, 1955.

It was an interesting time as while the Series 1957 was being printed with the motto the Series 1935F was being printed without the motto and then Series 1935G would come both with and without the motto as it was being printed about the same time as the Series 1957A.

Eventually IN GOD WE TRUST was to become a permanent part of the design.

The $1 Silver Certificate has had a certain cloud hanging over prices based on the fact that in the 1960s the Silver Certificate was saved in large numbers. The reason was simply that it was being replaced and as green seal and serial number Federal Reserve Notes appeared to make up a greater and greater percentage of the notes in circulation people began to hoard Silver Certificates. That was compounded by the fact that the government had taken steps to eliminate or reduce silver in coins, making it clear to many who were not serious collectors that some day silver coins and Silver Certificates might be worth premium prices.

In recent times the prices of previously very inexpensive later $1 Silver Certificates have begun to move up in top grades even as hoarded lower grade notes stay common.

It is simple recognition that the potential of hoards have kept prices artificially low for many years and now they are catching up. As important for the first time since they were hoarded the market is free to function without fear that suddenly there will be stacks of CU $1 Silver Certificates suddenly appearing to meet any potential demand at low prices.

Throughout the years one Silver Certificate has remained very popular and that is the Hawaii Emergency $1 Silver Certificate, a good note with a great story. It was simply a case where in the early days of World War II there was legitimate concern that the Japanese might attack and capture Hawaii and with it large amounts of American notes.

This concern might seem odd considering the outcome of the war, but back in early 1942 the fear was very real as most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was either at the bottom of the ocean or in need of repairs. The idea was to prevent captured notes from being used by the Japanese so special Series 1935A $1 Silver Certificates were created with large black HAWAII overprints so they could be easily recognized. The notes saw use in Hawaii throughout the war and later in islands as they were liberated from the Japanese. Their clear use in World War II helps to make the Hawaii $1 Emergency Silver Certificate a popular type note today is just $45 in fine condition with prices of $225 for a Gem CU 65 example while a star replacement note begins at $900 in XF.

There was a similar problem in the case of North Africa where large numbers of invading troops could potential be captured and with them their money. That produced another Series 1935A special $1 Silver Certificate but this time with a yellow seal instead of blue, which made the notes easy to identify. The North African invasion $1 Silver Certificates are also very popular with a Gem 65 CU listing for $325 while a star replacement note is $800 in XF.

There were other special Series 1935A $1 Silver Certificates in the form of “R” and “S” experimentals. These too were related to the war effort as it was decided that a replacement security paper might be needed for notes. To test the paper it was decided to run an experiment which saw a total of 1,184,000 notes of the test paper being made along with an identical number of notes of the normal paper. The notes were identified by large red overprinted “R” for regular or “S” for special paper and released into circulation. The tests were apparently not conclusive but there is no question that the “R” and “S” experimentals are popular and tough thanks to those modest printings. In XF you can expect to pay roughly $130-$150 for either but a star replacement note in the same grade is likely to start at $2,700.

Although the last $1 Silver Certificate vanished from circulation decades ago the fact is that there are still many Americans who remember the final days of the Silver Certificate. As a collection they make for an interesting set spanning the period from the days of the Comstock Lode and the Old West right up to the first Americans in space. It is an enormous amount of history and the $1 Silver Certificate was in the hands of average Americans for the entire time. That makes a collection interesting and fortunately for many still affordable.

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