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Bank Notes and ShinplastersBank Notes and Shinplasters

The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic

Joshua R. Greenberg

Narrated by Chaz Allen

Available from Audible


Book published by University of Pennsylvania Press


The colorful history of paper money before the Civil War

Before Civil War greenbacks and a national bank network established a uniform federal currency in the United States, the proliferation of loosely regulated banks saturated the early American republic with upwards of 10,000 unique and legal bank notes. This number does not even include the plethora of counterfeit bills and the countless shinplasters of questionable legality issued by unregulated merchants, firms, and municipalities. Adding to the chaos was the idiosyncratic method for negotiating their value, an often manipulative face-to-face discussion consciously separated from any haggling over the price of the work, goods, or services for sale. In Bank Notes and Shinplasters, Joshua R. Greenberg shows how ordinary Americans accumulated and wielded the financial knowledge required to navigate interpersonal bank note transactions.

Locating evidence of Americans grappling with their money in fiction, correspondence, newspapers, printed ephemera, government documents, legal cases, and even on the money itself, Greenberg argues Americans, by necessity, developed the ability to analyze the value of paper financial instruments, assess the strength of banking institutions, and even track legislative changes that might alter the rules of currency circulation. In his examination of the doodles, calculations, political screeds, and commercial stamps that ended up on bank bills, he connects the material culture of cash to financial, political, and intellectual history.

The book demonstrates that the shift from state-regulated banks and private shinplaster producers to federally authorized paper money in the Civil War era led to the erasure of the skill, knowledge, and lived experience with banking that informed debates over economic policy. The end result, Greenberg writes, has been a diminished public understanding of how currency and the financial sector operate in our contemporary era, from the 2008 recession to the rise of Bitcoin.

REVIEWS:

“In this persuasive and entertaining book, Joshua R. Greenberg shows that early republic Americans had their mind on their money and their money on their mind. They put bank notes-valuable and counterfeit, pristine and soiled-to mundane and surprising commercial, cultural, and political uses. Greenberg traces the circulation of these bills as material objects from bank vaults, to store tills, to consumers' pockets and back again. In so doing, he makes compelling use of them himself to register the contested economic and emotional meanings that these ubiquitous instruments had for Americans who held and passed them. I love this book.”

—Brian Luskey, author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

“With startling insight and ingenuity, Joshua Greenberg’s Bank Notes and Shinplasters explores Americans’ fixation on the features that distinguished one bill from another amid the mishmash of money issued by banks and businesses before the Civil War…Greenberg and other historians’ designation of the Civil War as the great divide in American monetary history downplays banks’ continuing command of the money supply in the postwar period, particularly as checks and drafts on deposits took the place of cash in many transactions. Few studies, however, have devoted such deeply illuminating consideration to bank notes as literary, artistic, and material artifacts of the early United States.”

Journal of Early American History





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University Press Audiobooks
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