A Smithsonian of a Find
History / May 30, 2022

Deep within the bowels of the National Museum of American History, in a hermetically sealed container, lie Federal Reserve notes from the 1800s and early 1900s. Why are we talking about this? The U.S. Treasury printed these specific dollar bills for the “Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Cambridge” and “National Bank of Cambridge.” Before 1862 the Treasury issued Demand Notes; each Demand Note was immediately redeemable in gold or silver “upon demand” at seven specific national banks. However, in an effort to standardize and unify currency around the country, Congress authorized a new class of currency known as “United States notes” or “Legal Tender notes.” These notes replaced Demand Notes and circulated until 1971.

By 1869 The Bureau of Engraving and Printing began engraving and printing the faces and seals of U.S. banknotes. Before this, U.S. banknotes were produced by private banknote companies and then sent to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for sealing, trimming, and cutting. By 1874 congress officially recognized the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) with a specific allocation of operating funds for the fiscal year 1875. Two years later, Congress mandated that the U.S. Department of the Treasury solely perform the engraving and printing of notes, bonds, and other securities of the United States.

Certified proofs, issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in collaboration with Dorchester National Bank of Cambridge and Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Cambridge. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

These unique notes mark a special time in Cambridge when industry was booming, and the City was making a name for itself as a maritime and aqua-culinary manufacturing giant. These two banks had enough money changing hands to request their own Demand Notes. This is just another representation of how Cambridge, though small, has been a part of big moments in history.

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