In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, the National Currency Act was signed into law by President Lincoln. One of the results of this legislation were National Bank Notes, which were issued by more than 14,000 banks, large and small, until 1935.

The system was relatively straightforward: For every $90 worth of U.S. Bonds that a bank would buy, the government would give them $100 worth of National Bank Notes to issue, each printed with the name of the bank on its front.

There were three 20-year "charters" in a variety of denominations, each of which had a different design. Among the most popular bills from the first charter, 1863 to 1882, during which 179 regional banks went national, is the Lazy 2, a $2 bill that features a very large, sideways, numeral two on the front of the note. The reverse side of a $20 bill from that period depicts Pocahontas being baptized; a $50 shows Washington crossing the Delaware.

The bills of the second charter, 1882 to 1902, are a little bit smaller than those of the first. Instead of acquiring these bills for their vignettes and engravings, collectors differentiate second-charter notes based on the type of back a bill has. The Brown Backs were, as the name suggests, brown, with the bank’s charter number printed in the center. Other bills had Date Backs (whose dates did not always correspond precisely to the duration of the second charter), while a third type had Value Backs, in which the value of the bill was spelled out in capital letters.

By the time of the third charter, 1902 to 1929, the bills began to look more like the money we were familiar with up until just a few years ago, when the design of U.S currency changed for the first time in decades. For example, five-dollar bills from this period bear an engraving of the Lincoln Memorial, as they do today. But the program of National Bank Notes was discontinued in 1935 due to the failure of many of the nation’s smaller banks during the Great Depression.


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