Fractional Currency: Spencer Clark “Five Cents”Financemuseum | June 22, 2012
Fractional currency notes were issued by the US federal government from 1862 to 1876 in denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cents to combat the shortage and hoarding of coins, which contained metals more valuable than the money the coins represented during the Civil War. The currency notes were originally called “postage currency,” but they officially became “fractional currency” after the passing of the Congressional Act of March 3, 1863.
Several fractional currency notes are on display in the Museum’s “Money: A History” exhibit. One particularly fascinating currency note is the “five cents” issue, lent to the Museum by collector and honorary curator of engraving Mark D. Tomasko. This particular “five cents” issue is the third version of the fractional currency note, and the first issue to contain signatures in order to prevent counterfeiting that had occurred with the previous issues. The currency note features the face of little-known Spencer Morton Clark, who served as the first Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, which is now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The BEP was in charge of the production of these notes, and a large sensation erupted when Clark’s face appeared on the new print of “five cents” notes.
It is said that Congress initially intended the currency to honor William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but they failed to specify which “Clark.” Spencer M. Clark took the opportunity to instead make himself the model of the portrait on the bill. A much less famous Clark, Spencer Clark was already under investigation for embezzlement, fraud and sexual harassment. By the time the government began to take action, Clark had already printed the notes in significant quantities.
Nineteen days after the new bills went into circulation, an outraged Congress passed a law forbidding the portrait of anyone living to be used on US currency, stamps or coins. Interestingly, Francis E. Spinner, the US Treasurer at the time, didn’t make much of a fuss when Clark placed him on the 50 cent note without his consent. Although he had the authority to select portraits on new notes, Spinner was pleasantly surprised by the choice.
Clark was able to keep his job only because of the interference of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. These notes still remain in legal tender today, as the law did not null notes with living portraits if the bills had already been printed before the passing of the law.
Julia Yeung is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance and attends Pace University studying Business Economics. Her twitter handle is @YeungJulia.
Lily Goodspeed is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance and a History major at Brown University. Her twitter handle is @lilygoodspeed.