We’ve always heard that “money talks.” I remembered the phrase while talking with Richard Doty, curator of our numismatics collection, about his upcoming Meet Our Museum presentation on November 12. He’ll display and talk about some fascinating examples from the “Richmond Hoard,” an extremely large stash (six hundred thousand plus!) of Confederate bills, recalled and cancelled in 1864, in that came to the Museum in 1999 via a very circuitous route. (The stash was lodged in the War Department, and then at Treasury, and then in the National Archives, and then finally taken to the Museum when the responsibility for the bills was given to the Smithsonian).
I’d seen some examples of the patched-together (even sewn-together!) bills that his staff and volunteers uncovered. But I had no idea just how many stories—how much HISTORY—could be told by the oddities they found. For example, he told me that inflation had become so bad by 1864 that bankers and others were batching low-denomination notes together in groups (a hundred fives, a hundred tens), because traded in that fashion, the notes still had reasonable value. He and his volunteers found such batches, sturdily bound with red tape or paper bands, turned in, and cancelled as a unit. He told me that “when we reflect on the ruinous inflation that distinguished money in the wartime South, such practices make eminent sense. But we would never have learned about them without the direct testimony of the notes.”
“Direct testimony of the notes.” What a powerful thought! The tattered and pieced-together notes he’ll share with the public are visual wonders, with stamps and bits of newspapers and old letters and cancelled bills pasted onto them. But the real lesson is our greater understanding of what the men and women of the South must have felt as they desperately tried to preserve the value of both the money and the Confederate cause.
In this case, “Show me the money!” really means, "Tell me the history!”
Susan Walther is a public programs coordinator at the National Museum of American History. She has always been fascinated by the graphic intricacies of various countries’ currencies.