Tony Swicer Explains How He Started Collecting Kentucky Bank Notes

October 26th, 2009

Tony Swicer is the president of the Palm Beach Coin Club, the vice president of Florida United Numismatists (FUN), and an avid collector of Kentucky bank notes. In this interview, he discusses the history of the regional banking system of the 19th and 20th centuries, the thrill of collecting his home-state notes, and the advantages of collecting currency over coins. Tony can be reached via FUN.

I started collecting when I was about 10 years old. My father was in the Air Force, so he got me started collecting everything—coins, stamps, military insignias, baseball cards, all kinds of stuff. I settled on coins, maybe because they’re worth the most money. I don’t know why particularly, but I just did. I collected coins from probably 1959 to the late ’70s when I sold my collection. I collected dollar-size metals for 10 years, and I sold that collection in about 1990.

1882 series Louisville, KY  Superb Gem Uncirculated

An 1882 series $5 note from Louisville, Kentucky. Grade: Superb Gem Uncirculated.

Then I floundered around for several years, not knowing what I wanted to collect. But I was still in the coin business, buying and selling, when it hit me: Why not collect my home-state notes? They’re very rare, and in the long run they’d probably appreciate.

The bank notes I collect date from 1863 through 1935. I bought the Don C. Kelly book, and it told me about all the banks, the number of known notes for each bank, and the pricing. Basically, you have to go out and buy them. You can’t find them anymore because the federal government recalled them all in 1935, and most of them have been turned in. There are about 600,000 known notes of all types in the United States, from every state.

When you consider that there were 12,635 chartered banks, 600,000 is not a lot of notes. That’s just fifty per bank on average. That’s how rare they are.

“For a while, California had its own nationals, what they called gold bank notes.”

I started collecting notes from Kentucky because it was my home state. It’s a thrill to get a note with the name of your city on it, too. When I acquired a bank note from my hometown bank that sold me a car, that was really exciting. Right now I’ve got about 15 notes from my hometown. The last note I bought was the only one if its kind known—an 1875 large-size note—and I thought if I don’t buy it now I’ll never see it again in my lifetime, so I bought it for $3,000. It was a bargain.

After I started collecting, I visited most of these towns. A lot of times the banks are long gone, but you can visualize in your mind what the place looked like.

I started buying bank notes at local coin shows, then bigger shows, and then I started buying them at national auctions because they were more plentiful. I bought 15 in one auction out in Beverly Hills a couple years ago.

I’ve been doing this for six years and I have about 215 different bank notes from Kentucky. It’s the thrill of the hunt that excites me. I hope to get over 400 before I’m done, maybe in another 10 years, if I’m lucky, and then maybe I’ll put them all up at auction.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the shows you attend?

Swicer: I went to the ANA show in Los Angeles in 2009. I go to the FUN Convention every year in Orlando because it’s only two-and-a-half hours away. And I’ve been to the Cincinnati show. I used to do the national circuit in the 1980s, but I’ve cut way back with the recession and everything.

1875 series Newport, KY My hometown note. This is the only $5 note known on this bank.

This 1875 series note from Newport, Kentucky is the only known $5 note from this bank.

These days, I mainly get my notes from national auction companies like Heritage, Stack’s, and Goldberg’s. I just go online and bid.

I bought those 15 Kentucky notes I mentioned at a Goldberg auction in Beverly Hills, online. And that’s how I’ve been acquiring them, just one here, one there. If I get one or two a month, I’m happy. Even locally I’ve picked up a couple of rarities, like a serial number one from Owensboro, Kentucky down at the Fort Lauderdale monthly coin show. It’s just incredible to find a serial number one. I snatched that up right away.

As I said, the average number of notes is fifty per bank, so they’re very rare. They made 5-dollar bills, tens, and twenties. Some of the bigger banks made fifties and hundreds. There are hoards that come out periodically. In Lexington, Kentucky, one bank had about 500 preserved notes, and I got some those in choice uncirculated condition.

Collectors Weekly: Do people collect by state?

Swicer: Yes. Even a lot of dealers collect by state. For example, Littleton Coin Company up in New Hampshire is mainly a mail-order company that’s been around since 1946. Littleton’s owner collects New Hampshire—he’s got about 250 different bank notes from the state. A lot of people also collect by condition. But most people, I believe, collect by state.

1902 series Owensboro $5 note, Serial #1 (Bottom left)

A 1902 series Owensboro $5 note, labeled serial #1 (bottom left).

Condition is not that critical. The Kelly book is for pricing in fine condition, which is mediocre at best. You don’t find a lot of these notes much nicer than that. I do have some uncirculated notes, but they’re few and far between. To find them uncirculated is really tough. So condition’s not that important, but in the Kelly book, for every grade you go up, you add 25 percent to the value. The grading scales are ‘fine’, ‘very fine’, ‘extremely fine’, ‘about uncirculated’, then ‘uncirculated’.

If someone finds a hoard of old bank notes, a lot of times they will uncover a few uncirculated notes, but for many banks there are simply no uncirculated notes available. A lot of times the best known note might be an extremely fine, which means maybe two or three creases and pretty crisp, but not new. So anything fine or better is collectible in national bank notes.

Collectors Weekly: Where was the first note issued in Kentucky?

Swicer: I believe in Louisville, and the last note in the whole country was also issued in Louisville, which is just a coincidence. The first national bank note in the United States was for the First National Bank of Philadelphia, and it got charter number one. That’s on all of its notes. Each bank had its own charter number, and every 20 years the charter was renewable.

Collectors Weekly: When did the first bank in Kentucky open?

Swicer: I believe it was probably First National Bank in Louisville, chartered in 1863. That’s when it all started, and that was charter number 109.

At the time, Kentucky had 111 towns, and a total of 238 banks were issued charters. My hometown, Newport, Kentucky, had three different banks over the years, each with a different charter number.

Collectors Weekly: Where were Kentucky’s biggest banks?

1902 series Newport $10

Swicer: Louisville and Lexington probably had the biggest, most prosperous banks, which means they printed a lot more notes. Those notes are more common today than the notes from the small-city banks. Louisville had 12 to 15 chartered banks, while my hometown, right across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio, had three.

Some banks were named after the person who started the bank, like the Joe Black Bank of Louisville. Others were just the First National Bank of Podunk, or whatever. A lot of the Kentucky notes were from German National Bank. They changed that name after World War I.

Collectors Weekly: Could Kentucky notes be used in a different state?

Swicer: That was the nice thing about it. They were printed by the Federal Reserve, so they could be used anywhere in the United States. National bank notes, even ones printed for chartered banks, were accepted all over the country with no problem. The notes that had been printed before that were regional. If you went far enough away from a given bank, they wouldn’t accept the notes. As a result, a lot of notes were traded at a discount.

Collectors Weekly: How did merchants make change?

Swicer: Well, at first everybody wanted hard coinage, silver and gold. After a period of time, though, they began to accept the notes. California actually wanted its notes to be redeemable in gold, and for a while they had their own nationals, what they called gold bank notes. But after 10 years they used the regular national bank notes like everybody else. Over time, merchants and customers alike began to accept the notes and realized that it was just as good as coinage. They were forced to. Either you took it or you didn’t get paid.

Collectors Weekly: How did a bank get chartered?

Swicer: Each bank came up with a minimum of $25,000, which they’d give to the government. That money would be put in government bonds, drawing interest. In turn, the bank would get currency printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the BEP.

Each bank was issued notes with its name, city, and state on it. In the beginning the notes had to be hand signed by the cashier and the president of the bank, so a lot of times those signatures were forged. The signature authorized the notes and made them legal tender through that bank. Finally, I believe in the early 1900s, the BEP started printing signatures on the notes.

1902 series Hodgenville, KY $20 note, Abraham Lincolns birthplace

A 1902 series $20 note from Hodgenville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.

See, the government would make these sheets of notes, but they wouldn’t print the whole thing. A five-dollar bill would have Lincoln on it, a ten would have Hamilton, etcetera. They would all have the same denomination and vignettes on them. Then they’d put the name of the bank and the charter number and all that on it. So they had a bunch of sheets already made up, half printed, and then when a new bank came online, they’d add in the new bank’s information.

The notes were standardized. Each $5 note had the same vignette, each $10 note had the same vignette, and so on. But they changed the series periodically, and that would give the currency a whole new look. In 1863 the notes looked one way. In 1875, they changed the notes and they all looked different. Notes from 1902 changed again, and then in 1929, of course, they went to the small-sized notes that we use today. Before that, all notes were larger.

The 1929 series, for example, is very plain looking, with no real vignettes on the front, just the printing of the bank and the serial numbers and all that stuff. The older notes had more vignettes on them, featuring people and different figures.

Collectors Weekly: Did the Federal Reserve print its own notes, too?

Swicer: Yes, they started printing paper money in 1861. This whole national bank note system came about because of the Civil War. They needed extra money to pay for the Union war effort. Making paper money was a way for the government to get more money into its coffers. They issued bonds against it so that the banks had something to back up their money.

At the same time, the government was issuing Federal Reserve notes, which were mostly backed by silver and gold until the mid-’20s. Since the 1930s, Federal Reserve notes have not been backed by anything.

Before the national bank note system there were several financial panics, one from 1835 to 1837 and another in the 1850s. Back then, banks just issued their own notes with nothing to back them up, and they all went bankrupt. Those notes are known as broken bank notes or obsoletes. They were outlawed after the Civil War when the government started issuing notes.

Collectors Weekly: The colonists also used paper money, right?

1902 series Louisville, KY $100 note

Swicer: Colonial currency was used to pay for the Revolutionary War. That was the main reason they came up with it. Early in the history of the country we did not have any gold coins, so people had to use paper, or they bartered. The early gold strikes in the United States were in 1829, and the government started coining after that. We used foreign coinage until 1857 because we had such a shortage of coins, especially silver and gold. Copper was easier to get—we bought copper from England for years after the Revolutionary War. But we didn’t have coinage of any consequence until the mid-1850s.

Collectors Weekly: What was the smallest denomination of paper money?

Swicer: From 1863 until 1875 we had fractional currency. They made three-, five-, 10-, 15-, 25-, and 50-cent notes because coins were being hoarded during the Civil War. In terms of the bank notes, the first year they made one-, two- and five-dollar notes was 1863. Around 1900, though, the smallest denomination was a five. The denominations went all the way up to 1,000, but they discontinued those pretty quick. After the turn of the century, a 100-dollar bill was pretty much the highest. The higher the denomination, the fewer they made, so they’re pretty scarce. I do have some three-hundreds in my collection, but they are very rare—they cost a couple thousand dollars each.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite bank notes in your collection?

Swicer: I’ve got an 1882 note from Louisville that’s in absolutely perfect condition—it has no signs of wear whatsoever. I really like my serial number one from Owensboro, Kentucky, 1902, because they started with number one and numbered them right on out through however many notes they made. And of course I get a kick out of having notes from my hometown banks. Those are my favorites, I guess. But generally, to have an older note in choice, uncirculated condition is amazing. I’ve got one from Hodgenville, Kentucky, where Abraham Lincoln was born, in choice uncirculated condition.

Collectors Weekly: How do you store your notes?

Swicer: They’re all in hard, clear currency holders. There’s no PVC on them, and I keep them in a safety deposit box at the bank. Periodically I look at them. I keep a list on my computer of what I have. That way, I can update it every time I buy a new note.

Once I get a complete collection of my hometown bank notes, I’m going to put them on a disc and send them to the local library so they have a copy of everything I’ve got because I don’t think they have more than one or two notes.

Collectors Weekly: Is there anything else that you want to say about collecting bank notes?

1929 Type 2 series Madisonville $10 note, Gem Uncirculated

Swicer: To me, collecting bank notes is just a general progression. When you’re a coin collector, you go from coins to maybe metals. A lot of us go that way. We start out with coins, and then we go on to other things. Eventually some of us get into paper money—that’s how it happened with me. I just narrowed it down to bank notes. Grading is not as important on bank notes as it is on coins, and the really nice thing about bank notes is they’re lightweight. You can lug your whole collection in a briefcase. In coinage, you can’t do that. They’re just too heavy. Paper money is much easier to store and handle.

(All images in this article courtesy Tony Swicer, vice president of FUN)

98 comments so far

  1. Loretha Says:

    Hello, Mr. Swicer,
    I have a 10 bill with a brown stamp series of 1929. Also has First and Farmers National bank of Blue Earth Minnesota with 5393 written on the sides. The condition is fair but does have a crease through the middle. Is this worth anything.
    Thanks in advance!

  2. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Loretha, your 1929 bill from Blue Earth MN, charter #5393, is worth about $350. Only 20 pieces are known.

  3. Jim Says:

    Hi Tony – I have a $5 Southern Bank of Kentucky Broken/Obsolete Note issued from Russellville S/N: 2115. The condition is AG-Good but fully intact. Was found inside of an old book from 1864. Is there a catalog or I.D number associated to this note? Value? Please advise. Thank you in advance!

    Best Regards,

  4. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Jim, the Southern Bank of KY is listed in Earl Hughes book, “Kentucky Obsolete Notes & Scrip” 1998, as # 744,745,&746 at about $75-$100.

  5. Jacque Says:

    I inherited a 1929 Type #1 Ten Dollar National Bank Note – Brown Seal the bank was in Oregon Wisconsin. I have been told it is rare and that there were only about 6 issued from that bank. Can you tell me the approximate value of the note. Thank you…..

  6. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Jacque, yes your note is rare 6 known, and is worth $2500 in Fine condition. Used but no tears or stains. It is charter #10620.

  7. Dana Funk Says:

    Very interesting article! I am VERY new at this, found a bank of Cincinatti five dollar bank note in my grandma’s things. It is in very bad shape, but I can’t seem to find much info about the bank notes from Cincinatti. Can you help Tony?

  8. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Dana, there are hundreds of Cincinnati bank notes. What is the date on it? Is it pre-civil war or a national bank note with bold black charter numbers on it?

  9. Dana Funk Says:

    Hello again Tony. I don’t see any bold numbers on the bill, and it has a date of August 22, 1857.

  10. Devan Nicholson Says:

    I have a Union National Bank of Houston $5 bill. the date on it is March 21, 1910. It has a blue seal. Im not sure what else you would need off of it. Can you tell me what its worth and any other facts. It appears to be in good condition but I’m new to this and wouldn’t know what to compare it to. It does have 3 lines where it has been folded. Thanks in advanced

  11. Tony Swicer Says:

    The only Cincinnati note I can find dated 1857 is “City Bank” worth about $50.

  12. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Devan, the Union NB of Houston is Charter #9712. There are 92 large size known (A lot). The value is about $150 in Fine condition.

  13. J.D. Harvey Says:

    My brother has a $20. FARMERS BANK of KENTUCKY , FRANFORT, note.
    It is in poor condition,and we cannot see any idintifying numbers . Is there any way to find out its age, and value of course.

  14. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi JD. Your note was issued between 1850-& 1859. It is probably worth $25-$35. in poor condirion.

  15. Sandra Hood Says:

    Mr Swicer,
    My grandparents left me a 1914 $5 Fed Reserve Note, Bank of Atlanta, 6-F, F24502824A, Burke and Houston, blue seal, can see slightly the crease marks. On eBay it seemed this condition would be considered “fine.” I also have a perfect condition 1976 $2 Fed Reserve Note, Bank of Atlanta, 6, F14955623A, Neff and Fimmer?. Also, a 1934 $20 Fed Reserve Note, Bank of Richmond, 5, E18868500A, Julian and Morganthou Jr. in very good condition. And, a 1944 1 Ein Mark ALLIIERTE MILITARBEHORDE, 042169020, “in Umlauf Gesetzt in Deutschland” (actually, it’s all in caps), green in the front, red in the back with an M in the middle in good condition. I can’t tell how much they are worth on eBay–esp none of the Atlanta bank w/ Burke and Houston. Thanks, if you can tell me about them.

  16. Steve Francis Says:

    Mr Swiver,
    I have a ten dollar national currency from the southern national bank of Richmond Kentucky. It is dated July 6th 1910 with the following markings, S9832 in blue. T892703D and says series of 1902. It also has 11681 under the picture of William McKinley. I would say it is in great condition as it is in a protective sleeve with no creases or marks on it. What do you think it is worth?

  17. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Steve, your Richmond note Charter #9832 has 28 notes known. It is worth about $500-600.

  18. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Sandra, your 1914 $5 is worth about $75. All 1976 notes are Face Value, $2. 1934 green seal $20 is probably $20-22. The allied currency might be $1.

  19. Sandra Hood Says:

    Mr. Swicer,
    You’re awesome for doing this—spending this time. Thank you so much.

  20. Russell Browning Says:

    Just stumbled on this tonight. Being from Kentucky I always do a search on various sites and find all kinds of stuff. I noticed KY money on ebay in the last month or so and was suprised to see a Paducah note. Just wanted to say hey and wish you luck in your collecting.

  21. Tony Swicer Says:

    Thanks Russell. I usually purchase my notes at a major show or by major auction.



    My great grandma had given me a $5.00 Bank Note issued April 23, 1900 from National Bank of Kentucky of Lousiville upper left is the serial number 138055 and right side number 5312S in good conditon.

    Is this enough information to give me a gauge of its value?


  23. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Richard, your Louisville #5312 $5 bill in Fine condition is worth $150. If the bill is somewhat crisp, not limp, then it is worth $185. 289 large size are known. That is a lot.

  24. David Kitchen Says:

    I have a $10.00 note issued by the Bank of Louisa Kentucky. I was wondering what the value might be for such a note

  25. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi David, your $10 Louisa KY note #7110, 1929 small size is worth $250 in fine condition. If it is a 1902 series large size, it is $500. The charter #7122 small size is $300 and the large size is $600. All in fine condition.

  26. Moe-Tiqua Johnson Says:

    Hello Mr. Swicer, I was kind of curious because my mother has a few bank notes, some are printed on both side and some are not, what’s the difference?, I know one of them is a $100 bill from 1863 and it read Chattanooga, TN. Only a couple is larger than the others, I don’t have all the bills with me, to give you a precise description of the notes, I’m going off of memory and I also have a 1943 penny how can I tell if it’s worth anything considering there a few fakes out there. Thank you.

  27. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hello Moe-Tiqua, your Chattanooga, TN notes has several varities but it is worth sbout $ 100. A 1943 steel cent is worth 15 cents. A 1943 copper cent can be worth $40,000.

  28. Nancy Eads Says:

    I have two bills I know very little about and I’m hoping you can help me…I don’t want to sell them as they been handed down for several generations, but not kept well…I just want to know the history on them…The first one is a $2 bill, at top it has The Agricultural Bank of Tennessee…On the left side there is a oval with a plow, hay, & a tree on the upper half…What looks like might be a water trowl & below it is the word in a ribbon Commercy with a date 1796…Encircled in the outer of this oval is the words CHARTERED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF TENNISSEE MARCH 4TH 1854…On the right side is a woman sitting looking to her left with a big 2 at her right side…In the center cattle and sheep under a couple of trees and what looks like a basket sitting on a big rock…Below that is the words, Will pay TWO DOLLARSon demand to the barrier BROWNSVILLE…then directly under that is a steer…The 2’s on the top are alike, but the 2’s on the bottom are different from the top as well as each other…Can send picture if you like…Pretty old and fragile…would like to know how to preserve it better…The other bill I have is a $50 note or money, not sure…On the top it has what looks like a Harbor, with houses and fishing boats in the water, with a 50 on each side incased in a oval and neither are the same…Left 50 has a No. next to it, right side has a A next to it…Left side it has a decorative column with the word FIFTY spelled out…Right side another column, but different with the word KENTUCKY 50 incased in a shield on the lower and possible a L in the upper shield…Center is writes, The Directors and Company of the SOUTHERN BANK OF KENTUCKY promise to pay_________fifty dollars on demand…Below that it reads, Bowling Green…Then below that it reads CASH, then Murray Draper Fairman & Co. …Then to the far right of that it reads Pres! …Quit a bit huh?Any info would be greatly appreciated…Thank you…

  29. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Nancy, your Tennessee note in fine condition, heavy wear but no tears or stains is worth about $75. Your Bowling Green, KY note is 1818. 1-5 known and worth about $350.

  30. heath burden Says:

    i have a $10, 1903 national currency paducah ky note poor cond whats the seal

  31. Tony Swicer Says:

    Hi Heath, your Paducah $10 if it is charter #2093, it is worth about $200 even in poor condition. If it is charter #1500, it could be $750. Charter #12961 is $300.

  32. Bonny Mann Says:

    I have a $10 bill S7848 dated June 29, 1902 from Hamilton National Bank of Chattanooga. . The bill has been folded. Has the blue seal. What is the value of this bill. Thank you.

  33. Phyllis Livingston Says:

    Hi, I have a $5.00 large size bill dated April 23, 1920 drawn on National Bank of Kentucky of Louisville, Series 1902. Excellent condition, has a blue seal on it. Ben Harrison is pictured on the bill. The number on it is 5312. This was given to my family sometime around 1919. Do you have any idea the value of this? Thank You. Phyllis

  34. Luis Mendez Says:

    Señor Swicer : mi consulta es sobre un SILVER CERTIFICATE DE 1923 US 1,000,000 , – dollars o US 100,000,- A58675453D , necesitaria informacion sobbre el certificado y valor , desde ya muchas gracias y exitos con su recolecciòn.

  35. Marcia Falotico Says:

    Have a 20 dollar 1904 Old National Bank of For Wayne, Also 1888o, any idea what they are worth. Both in mint condition. Thank you for your help

  36. domingo otero Says:

    I have an July 2nd 1852 Newport Safety Fund
    Bank of Kentucky one dollar bill.
    It has the three mechanics in the center, And the three seated ladies on the bottom. Is this bill collectable?

  37. Betty Smith Says:

    I have a $5 Confederate bill. Richmond .. April 6th 1863
    No. 2 280

  38. Jane Marcum Says:

    I have a $5 dated 1929 stamped First National Bank Of Lexington Ky. It does not look like it has ever been circulated. Wondered if there was any value.

    Thank You

  39. Jimmy Chew Says:

    I have a $5 The Nationl Bank of Kentucky of Louisville, brown back, brown seal date April 23, 1900, Ser. # H201330H. Looks like fair condition. Any significant value?

  40. Lisa slife Says:

    I have a 1907 20 dollar Johnstown co…8636. #3007 blue

  41. Tony Swicer Says:

    Lisa, your Johnstown, CO note is worth about $6500 in Fine condition with no tears or stains. If you want to sell it, I recommend at auction.

  42. Tony Swicer Says:

    Jimmy Chew- your $5 Louisville note #5312, is worth about $100.

  43. Tony Swicer Says:

    #88, Jane Marcum, your note is #906. In uncirculated condition (No folds), it is worth about $100

  44. Tony Swicer Says:

    #87, Betty Smith, your Confederate note is worth about $30

  45. Tony Swicer Says:

    #86, Domingo- your Newport note is worth about $30.

  46. Tony Swicer Says:

    #85 Marcia, your 1904 note is about$400 and your 1880 is about$2500. Both are Charter 3285. Notes that are serial number 1 are worth a lot more.

  47. Tony Swicer Says:

    #83 Phyllis- your $5 #5312 in fine condition is about $100.

  48. Tony Swicer Says:

    #82, Bonnie, your Chattanooga note is worth about $125, in fine condition, even wear, no tears or stains.

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