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Americana Gallery Highlights

The Americana Gallery presents iconic rarities of American numismatics alongside more accessible pieces to inspire new and seasoned collectors. Prized treasures, such as the 1933 eagle (gold $10); a rare 1855 Wass, Molitor & Company $50 California Territorial Gold piece; and a beautiful set of 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition commemoratives, are peerless presentations of American numismatic excellence. Rare uncut paper money sheets from the famous Aubrey and Adeline Bebee collection demonstrate America’s determination to secure economic security through paper currency. Selections from the Baker-Manley collection of Washington medals, as well as federal and territorial gold coinage from the Carlson Chambliss donation enhance America’s inspiring monetary narrative. Check back soon for new exhibits!

Discovery of the New World

The Americana gallery begins with the exploration and exploitation of the New World. As soon as the Spanish discovered silver and gold, a pattern of international trade developed based on precious metals. Extracted as cheaply as possible, they were then shipped to the East in exchange for luxury goods like silk, spices and china. The desire for gold soon lured other European powers, who battled for control of the first global trading network. Subsequent colonization enabled nascent western European nation-states to rise to world dominance through military and economic advancements. Unfortunately for the English colonists, precious metals were lacking on the east coast of North America, leading to a remarkably complex numismatic history that mirrors the saga of the United States itself.

Gold in the New World
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The Mystique of Gold
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American Gold

When the founding fathers formed the United States from the bickering former English colonies, they needed to forge a sense of national identity. A unified national currency was an ideal solution – improving the economy by eliminating the competing colonial currencies (based on the English pound), and simultaneously fostering a sense of national unity. Thomas Jefferson provided the inspiration by recommending the readily available Spanish Colonial monetary system. Spain’s silver 8 reales (known as “Spanish dollars”) and gold 8 escudos (“doubloons”) became the model for the nation’s inaugural coinage. The first United States Mint was built in the new nation’s capital, Philadelphia, in 1792. Two years later, the U.S. released its first silver dollars, followed by gold eagles ($10) and half eagles ($5) in 1795. The quarter eagle ($2.50) of 1796 completed the early series of gold coins. Shortages of gold and silver continued to plague the US Mint for many years, forcing the nation to rely on substitutes – in particular, privately-issued paper currency – until the great western gold discoveries of the mid-19th century.

American Gold Case
Early U.S. Gold
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Colonial Currency

Paper money has a unique place in U.S. history. British North America’s lack of silver and gold, combined with English export restrictions on bullion and coins, forced colonists to get creative. At one time or another, tobacco, nails, beaver pelts, and other commodities were all used as alternative forms of money. In 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorized the first paper money in North America – the first issued by any government in the West. Other colonies soon followed suit. 

Following their colonial precedent, the Continental Congress and State governments issued paper currency to pay for the Revolution. Unfortunately, Continental dollars were over-issued, and without hard-currency to back them, their value quickly collapsed as public confidence waned. Indeed, more than a decade after Revolutionary victory, Continental notes were redeemed for treasury bonds at just one percent on the dollar!

Money of the Civil War

The Civil War (1861-1865) was a defining experience for American history and currency. Financing war is problematic for governments and causes huge economic challenges – doubly so in a Civil War. The Federal and Confederate governments realized that extraordinary efforts were required to raise funds for the armies fighting the war. Over four years, American money was forged under pressure until, like the nation, it emerged profoundly changed.

The North entered the war with an established Treasury, a well-developed industrial sector and a tariff structure. In stark contrast, the nascent Confederate government had to build an administrative organization from scratch. Regardless, both sides needed cash, vastly more than what was available through specie. The South resorted to traditional paper payable on demand, while the North experimented with a new multi-tiered approach, providing a novel foundation for federal paper currency.

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