Answer Man

‘Mummy’ of our country became first woman on paper money

Q. In recent stories about putting a famous American woman’s picture on the $10 bill, they briefly mention that Martha Washington once had her portrait on U.S. currency, but they never give details. Can you flush out this story a little?

— Elmer Lewis, of Fairview Heights

A. When a $1 silver certificate with Martha Washington’s engraved likeness was released to the public in the fall of 1886, it stirred up a hornet’s nest in some quarters — but not for the reason some might think.

The fact that they put a real woman on U.S. paper currency for the first (and, so far, only) time didn’t raise an eyebrow. In fact, the inclusion of renowned portrait artist Gilbert Stuart’s likeness of the first first lady in her stylish bonnet drew rave reviews. The Atlanta Constitution for one came close to describing it almost pin-up-girl terms.

“The people have had for a long time with them the dollars of our daddies (a popular term for older silver dollars), but the government has at last furnished (us) with the dollar of our mummy,” the Oct. 28, 1886, issue gushed. “The new issue of the one dollar bill is very pretty; the most striking thing about it is the portrait of Mrs. Martha Washington, and as this is the first bill issued by our government bearing a female portrait, the boys are all stuck on it.”

What some did not like, however, were the silver certificates themselves as a unit of currency, even though they were designed to make life more convenient, according to Tom LaMarre at Coins Magazine.

Since there were no credit cards in those days, people were often stuck carrying a pocket full of heavy dollar coins among other change. So through laws in 1878 and 1886, Congress authorized the printing of paper silver certificates that could be redeemed for silver-dollar coins.

“Whatever objection may be urged against the use of silver dollars, owing to their heaviness and bulk, it has been largely removed by the provision for silver certificates,” according to the 1898 edition of “The History of Bimetallism in the United States.” “Any owner of not less than 10 silver dollars may deposit the same with any assistant treasurer of the United States and receive certificates.”

Two problems: Unlike paper money today, these certificates were not guaranteed legal tender for all debts. That would mean if the guy at the Gas ’n’ Go didn’t accept your certificates, you’d have to cash them in somewhere for coins. Making matters worse, as silver prices dropped, not even the coins had a dollar’s worth of the precious metal.

It’s “an insult to the memory of the Washington family,” the Galveston Daily News said of “the Martha note” on Aug. 19, 1886. Washington, the paper noted, said he could not tell a lie, but the notes were dishonest in that they lacked legal tender status and may eventually be redeemed for coins containing far less than a dollar’s worth of silver.

Moreover, there was a problem with the 1886 note itself. While the bill’s ornate engraving was both striking and designed to deter counterfeiters, some say it was so cluttered that users confused it with other denominations. In 1891, a more open design replaced some of the certificate’s fancy engraving. In 1896, the $1 Educational Series removed Martha’s portrait from the front and put both George and Martha on the reverse.

After that, women disappeared entirely from currency, although Martha did resurface on a commemorative first-spouse coin in 2007 (it sold out in hours) and U.S. postage stamps in 1902, 1923 and 1938. To see the certificate and learn more about counterfeiting in the 19th century go to www.numismaster.com and search for Tom LaMarre under “News and Articles.”

A wedding to remember: My recent column about the old Jay’s A&W Drive-In in Swansea elicited a flood of happy memories — in more ways than one.

On June 15, 1957, Carl and Marilyn Eschman had a 10 a.m. wedding planned at St. Mary’s Church in Belleville. Just one problem: Carl lived on the east end of town and Marilyn on the west. In between, monsoon-like rains had turned Richland Creek into a raging river that produced one of the worst floods in Belleville history.

“Most of our wedding party along with our guests were also stranded,” Carl said. “The flowers and the wedding cake were somewhere between Belleville and East St. Louis.”

Finally at 4 p.m., the couple said their vows during a makeshift ceremony, but a post-wedding brunch had to be canceled because the old Augustine’s Restaurant on Centerville Avenue also was flooded out. So after a brief reception at the bride’s mother’s home, the hungry couple went in search of food to start their honeymoon. By now you undoubtedly can guess where they wound up.

“Most of the roads leaving Belleville were closed, so we had to spend our first marriage night in an unfurnished house we had rented,” Carl said. “Many of the local restaurants also were closed — that is, except for Jay’s. So, our wedding day dinner consisted of hot dogs and root beer from Jay’s.”

Now, 58 years later, Carl says he and his beloved continue to live happily ever after.

Today’s trivia

What was one of the biggest problems Leonard Nimoy faced on the set while directing “3 Men and a Baby” in 1987?

Answer to Thursday’s trivia: In 1904, William Kissam Vanderbilt II staged a 30.24-mile auto race over the dirt roads of Nassau County on New York. With a large purse, it drew even top European drivers into the competition, with the winner — George Heath driving a Panhard — claiming the first Vanderbilt Cup. Not to be outdone, Vanderbilt’s brother, Harvey, invented modern contract bridge in the 1920s and began awarding the Vanderbilt Trophy to the winner of his national bridge tournament. The bridge tourney continues to this day, but after being revived in 1996, the auto-racing cup was awarded for the last time in 2007.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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