What Are Silver Certificates? The History Behind This Long-Lost Currency

What Are Silver Certificates? The History Behind This Long-Lost Currency

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American currency has evolved so much in the nearly 250 years since our country’s inception.

There are many old forms of currency that have been phased out over the years, and these older forms of currency have influenced the money that we use today. One of the most notable forms of early currency in the US is the silver certificate. In this article, we’ll delve into the history of the silver certificate and how it led to the development of the paper currency we use today. 


What is a Silver Certificate? 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the US used silver coins and silver bullions as currency. Due to chances in currency standards, the US created silver certificates to represent certain amounts of silver stored in the bank. While the amounts varied over the years, there were denominations of $1 to $1000 at various points in time.  


Why Did The US Release Silver Certificates? 

Alexander Hamilton had created a bimetallic currency standard in the mid-19th century. This created a standard rate of exchange between the two metals. However, the Coinage Act of 1873 essentially ended this, creating a gold standard and halting the production of silver dollars. 


Many people disliked this new gold standard, as the value of silver had started to decline as a result. Businesses decided to invest in silver as a way of pressuring the government to restore the bimetallic standard. Eventually, the government passed the the Bland-Allison Act, which required the government to continually purchase silver bullion each month, which stabilized the price of silver. They put this silver into circulation, but instead of using bullions or coins, they used paper silver certificates. For many years, users could redeem their silver certificates for silver dollars or silver bullions from the treasury. 


How Did Silver Certificates Change Over Time? 

Since silver certificates were one of the first forms of paper currency in the US, people were skeptical at first. In fact, many vendors did not accept silver certificates when they were first released in 1878. It wasn’t until 1882 that legislation cleared up the status of the silver certificate and it was accepted as legal tender throughout the United States, even in private transactions. People quickly realized that these paper notes were much lighter and easier to carry around than heavy silver coins. 


The first set of silver certificates had denominations ranging from $10 to $1000. In 1886, the government decided to print smaller denominations of $1, $2, and $5 silver certificates. This made the certificates much more accessible to the average person, something that was very important for the economy. This increased access to silver certificates meant that they were much more widely circulated. 


These silver certificates went relatively unchanged until the 1920s. The US Treasury had been considering a redesign for silver certificates for a while. This redesign would make the certificates even smaller and easier for citizens to carry around with them. However, World War I meant that the government had limited resources, and the new silver certificates weren’t issued until 1929. 


There were several notable differences between these new certificates and the old certificates. One major difference was that the government could redeem these certificates with silver bullions instead of silver dollars. This meant that the government did not have to spend the extra time producing silver dollars specifically for this purpose. 


These silver certificates remained roughly unchanged for the next 35 years, until the Treasury stopped producing silver certificates. 


Why Did The US Stop Producing Silver Certificates? 

Demand for silver skyrocketed from the 1930s to the 1960s. Congress took steps to stabilize the price of silver multiple times throughout these decades. In the early 1960s, the Treasury realized there would soon be a shortage of silver bullion if they did not take action. They initially limited silver certificates to lower $1 denominations, but eventually decided to stop producing them altogether in 1964. They remained legal tender, and until 1968 could still be redeemed for silver granules. However, after 1968 the government made the decision to stop redeeming silver certificates. 


What Did Silver Certificates Look Like? 

Since silver certificates were in circulation for so long, their designs changed quite a bit over the years. However, there are many common themes that run throughout the various iterations of the silver certificate. Many of these certificates closely resemble current US currency. In fact, you might even find some of the smaller silver certificates from the 1930s through 1960s in circulation today. These silver certificates would be treated as normal US dollars and are not redeemable for silver. 


The early large size silver certificates were approximately 50 percent larger than our current bills. Each certificate had a portrait on the front, with text specifying the denomination, serial number, and other key details. Most of the early silver certificates had a red seal on the front. The portrait changed over the years, and several notable US figures were on the silver certificate over time. The first $1 silver certificate featured Martha Washington. 


There are some notable silver certificate editions that are highly sought after by collectors. Some of these include: 


  • The Educational Series certificate. These certificates came in $1, $2, and $5 denominations. The front of each certificate featured beautifully detailed vignettes, which served as allegories for societal growth and progress. The back of each certificate featured portraits of two notable historical figures. These certificates were released in 1896. The front portraits were titled History Instructing Youth, Science presenting steam and electricity to Commerce and Manufacture, and Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World. The portraits were also influenced by neoclassical art styles. 
  • Eagle of The Capitol. This unique series featured a picture of an eagle with its wings aloft on the front. Underneath the eagle are small portraits of presidents Lincoln and Grant. The back features a relatively subtle design with text detailing the government’s terms of exchange. 
  • Running Antelope certificate. In 1899, the Treasury released a $5 silver certificate with Hunkpapa chief Running Antelope. Running Antelope was known for being a very brave and articulate leader, and his oratory skills helped his tribe thrive despite a rapidly changing culture in South Dakota. Running Antelope is the only American Indian to be depicted on paper currency in the United States. However, his depiction caused some controversy, as he was shown wearing a Pawnee headdress as opposed to a culturally accurate Sioux headdress.

These are just a few of the notable silver certificate designs that existed over the years. While old silver certificates cannot be exchanged for silver today, many collectors still seek them out because of their unique historical significance. 


How Much Are Silver Certificates Worth Today? 

Although silver certificates don’t carry value as legal tender with the US government anymore, many of them are highly sought after among collectors. Many of these silver certificates sell for far more than their face value, although their price depends on factors like the edition and the quality the silver certificate is in. 


Many of the later small silver certificates look very similar to today’s $1, $5, and $10 bills. However, there are a few subtle differences in the text on the bill. Because of these small differences, these silver certificates might sell for two to four times their face value. If you have an old collection of these silver certificates in good condition, they could be very valuable. 


Certain editions of the silver certificates are worth much more than this. Many collectors will pay quite a bit for the old large size silver certificates, especially if they are still in good condition. For example, the Black Eagle silver certificate can be worth anywhere from $200 to $950, depending on what condition it is in. The Educational Series is worth even more, often starting at $500 and sometimes fetching several thousand dollars for one note. 


Some silver certificates have a star at the beginning of the serial number. This means that the bill replaced another note that was damaged during printing. Since these star certificates are very rare, they can be worth thousands of dollars, particularly if they are from an old or rare printing series. In particular, there are certain series from 1928 that are very rare and can be worth up to $17,500 if they have a star and are in good condition. 


Final Thoughts

Although many collectors focus on old coins, there are also plenty of people who are interested in rare paper currencies like old silver certificates. If you are interested in buying old silver certificates, or you have old silver certificates to sell, contact a local coin dealer.

Many coin dealers also specialize in paper currency. If you’re looking to buy, they can use their connections to find silver certificates that are in good condition. If you’re looking to sell, they can help you find a reputable buyer. They can also assess your silver certificates to make sure they’re worth selling. 

Or if you're looking to pick up some silver certificates for you collection you can check out the ones we currently have available here.

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