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Monday, May 24, 2021

Boosted twice by war, then by economic catastrophe, paper money tells the story of America

Notaphilist, historian, and my uncle, Armand Shank yesterday gave a fascinating talk on the history of banking and paper currency in Maryland for the Historical Society of Baltimore County.

From Shank's collection: Currency issued in Baltimore
by the Continental Congress, 1777
The history of money is, of course, the history of America.  The British initially held strict control over currency in the colonies, Shank explained, and, lo and behold, British banking rates and policies seemed never to inure to the benefit of colonists.  Local currency, besides federal "IOUs," sometimes appeared of necessity and represented resistance.  Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was a publisher of money and used samples his grandfather brought back from Europe as models.  Shank showed one of Bache's products.

Late in the 18th century, the Continental government issued national currency to raise millions of dollars for the Revolution.  Acceptance of the currency was expected, Shank said, for refusing it would brand one a traitor.  After independence, the First Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791, but lasted only until 1811, a casualty of Jefferson's state-centric vision of federation prevailing over Hamilton's wish for a strong central government.  State and local money came back on the scene in a big way, notwithstanding the ultimately decisive U.S. Supreme Court approval of the Second Bank of the United States in McCulloch v. Maryland, the 1819 staple of the modern constitutional law class.  Shank shared images of money from Baltimore County in the early 19th century.  Counterfeits proliferated.

Shank's first acquisition
In the 1860s, it was the need to raise money for war that again prompted the assertion and mass issue of federal currency.  The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864 strengthened and standardized national currency and, by 1865, phased out currency issued by state banks.  Local banks continued to issue currency, but only with the imprimatur of a national charter system.  Financial crises early in the 20th century led to reforms such as the first Federal Reserve Act, in 1913.  Federal reserve notes as we recognize them today emerged from a more vigorous standardization policy at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.

Quonset-style home in 1948
(Ed Yourdon CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Shank shared images from his collection of notes issued by the National Bank of Cockeysville, the town in northern Baltimore County where Shank grew up.  A $20 note of the bank was the first in Shank's collection, coming into his possession when he was a boy.  Circa 1950, Shank's father, Armand Shank, Sr., took Armand, Jr., to see Alexander D. Brooks, a cashier whose name appeared on the currency and who lived still in Cockeysville.  Alas, Shank said, Brooks, then in his 80s, had little recollection of his work for the bank.  Brooks died in 1956.

I have fond memories of being a kid in the 1970s, playing with cousins in the backyard of Armand Shank, Sr.'s home, where Armand, Jr., grew up, in Cockeysville.  The home, built in 1950 and still standing, was of a quonset-hut style, unusual today.  Many such homes were once built in this cost-effective style to meet the demand for housing after World War II: the homestead of the Baby Boom.  I didn't know that at the time, of course; I was more interested in the vast volume of lightning bugs that populated the yard.  I remember the smell of the place, fresh cut grass with a not unpleasant hint of motor oil.  It charms me now to think of another boy in that same environment, a generation earlier, one day awakening to a passion for American history told through the lineaments of banknotes.

Armand Shank is a member of the Board of Directors of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.   He is co-author of Money and Banking in Maryland: A Brief History of Commercial Banking in the Old Line State (1996).  He has a new article forthcoming on the subject for History Trails, a publication of the society.

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