The man who put his own face on American bills issued during the Civil War

With the beginning of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, an event occurred that is usual in the case of war conflicts, or at least it was until coins were no longer made with valuable metals. I refer to the accumulation of currencies in anticipation of difficult times, hoping that their value will tend to rise.

Soon the shortage of coins led people to use other means of paying, such as stamps, but things got so bad that the government finally decided to issue paper money in fractions of a cent. The first banknotes were issued on August 21, 1862, just over a year after the start of the war. During the following 14 years, bills of 3, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents would appear, with the particularity that none of them ever carried a serial number.

At that time the superintendent of what would later become the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which oversaw the creation, printing, and circulation of legal tender notes, was Spencer Morton Clark.

Not only was he the big boss who controlled the issuance of paper money, he was the first of all, since it had been his idea to create such a separate office from the Treasury Department, which he achieved in 1862. On August 29 of that same year He began his operations at the head of the new National Currency Office, helped by an assistant and four operators.

Clark, who had worked for the Treasury Department since 1856, introduced several innovations in the banknote creation process, such as the automation of the signatures of Treasury officials or the creation of the official seal that still appears today, with variants, on current dollar bills.

In March 1863, Congress approved the issuance of the third series of penny notes, specifying that the 5 should bear the effigy of the famous explorer Clark, in reference to William Clark. The Lewis and Clark expedition was the first American expedition to cross western North America, beginning on August 31, 1803, and ending on September 23, 1806, producing a vast number of cartographic maps of the vast region.

The point is, while Spencer Clark probably knew what Congress meant when they told her that Clark should be on the bills, she saw an opportunity to go down in history in a unique way and stamped her own face on them.

Nobody knows exactly how it happened, and there is even an alternative theory that involves the United States Treasurer himself, Francis E. Spinner, the result of a misunderstanding that arose in a conversation between the two about who should appear in them.

Front and back of banknote / photo National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain

The bills of that third issue began to circulate on December 5, 1864, and by the time Congress became aware of the matter, large numbers were already being printed, making their withdrawal impossible. The only option left was to eliminate, in the next issue of 1869, the 3- and 5-cent notes. Before, just in case, on April 7, 1866, Congress passed a law according to which only people who have died can appear on the paper money of the United States, a law that is still in force.

Surprisingly, Spencer M. Clark was not suddenly fired, but rather kept his position at the head of the currency issuance office, thanks to the personal intervention of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase (he is responsible for the phrase that appears in all dollar bills: In God We Trust (In God We Trust).

He continued to direct the printing of paper money until his resignation in 1868, going on to work for the Department of Agriculture, where he would come to direct the Bureau of Statistics until his death in 1890. Today the nickels with his effigy are highly coveted by the collectors.


Bureau of Engraving and Printing / / / Report to the Secretary of the Treasury From the First Division National Currency Bureau (Spencer M. Clark) / Wikipedia.