During the Civil War, the high demand for precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper resulted in a shortage of coins. Those that were minted were routinely horded by a nervous public. In response, in 1863, the U.S. government issued Fractional Currency in 3, 5, 10, 15, 25, and 50-cent denominations.
Fractional Currency, which was printed in four issues and circulated until 1876, is widely available and popular with beginning numismatists. One of the most sought-after prizes is the 5-cent note bearing a portrait of Spencer M. Clark, who was President Lincoln’s superintendent of the National Currency Bureau. Clark, who by most accounts was not an especially popular figure, managed to put his own bearded face on the 5-cent notes produced from 1863 to 1867. This act of egotism prompted Congress to pass a law banning images of living persons on currency.
But for the most part, Fractional Currency was a success, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Francis E. Spinner, Treasurer of the United States. The denominations were his idea, but he didn’t stop there. Instead, Spinner used the need to print small notes as opportunities to experiment with different types of papers, inks, and anti-counterfeiting measures.