Did You Know That George Washington’s First Appearance on U.S. Currency was on an Obsolete Banknote from Westerly, Rhode Island?

George Washington’s aversion his likeness appearing on federally-issued coinage is well-remembered. Resisting the monarchical overtones of such appearances, United States coinage initially featured an allegorical bust of Liberty, establishing a precedent of not including any chief executives on coinage which would persist for decades after 1792.

While the Constitution gave the right to coin money to the federal government (and denied it to the states), private banks were free to feature whatever motifs they wished on their notes. The first bank to disregard Washington’s sensibility was, somewhat ironically, the Washington Bank in Westerly, Rhode Island. In 1800, less than a year after Washington’s passing, the bank issued notes bearing his portrait. These notes are thought by obsolete paper money experts to be the first banknotes issued after the Revolution and Washington’s death that featured the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Crude representations of Washington had appeared on notes produced during the revolution and his likeness was also featured on tokens and medals produced after the conflict celebrating his service.

The plates for the Washington Bank notes were prepared by Amos Doolittle, “The Revere of Connecticut,” an engraver perhaps best known for his engravings of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The uniface notes bear simple designs, typical of banknotes of the era, with Washington’s portrait in a circular cartouche which appears on different spots on different denominations.

Though we are offering none of these obsolete notes at the moment, our upcoming Collectors Choice Online Auctions include a wide range of Washingtoniana, from Washington quarters and Civil War tokens bearing his likeness to 1790s “pennies” celebrating his life and voluntary departure from the Presidency.

Readers interested in learning more about Washington’s many appearances on currency might read Heinz Tschachler’s 2020 George Washington on Coins and Currency, one of this blogger’s favorite numismatic books.

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