By CoinWeek …..
United States paper money has been blandly consistent for much of the past century – but this wasn’t always the case.
In the 19th century, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing employed some of the best engravers in the country, and as a result, the United States issued notes that were experimental, visually interesting, and–at times–quite stunning to behold.
On of the most sought-after and collectible series of paper money is the Series of 1869 “Rainbow Note”, so called due to the colorful gradient of the paper stock. Seven denominations were issued in the series: a $1 note featuring George Washington; a $2 note featuring Thomas Jefferson; a $5 note featuring Andrew Jackson; a $10 featuring Daniel Webster (the so-called “Jackass Note” due to the illusion that the small eagle portrait looks like a donkey when turned upside down); a $20 note featuring Alexander Hamilton; a $50 note featuring Henry Clay; and a $100 note featuring the “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln.
The artistry on the notes varies from piece to piece. In our opinion, the one-, two-, and five-dollar bills are the clear standouts, with the $2 being a masterpiece. The design was the work of engraver James Smillie (1807-1885). Smillie was a Scottish immigrant who settled first in Canada and then made his way to New York, where he plied his craft as an engraver. His sons were also accomplished engravers and artists.
For the $2 Legal Tender Note, Smillie chose the United States Capitol as the note’s central focal point. His depiction is striking as it shows the edifice on what might be a typical somewhat cloudy summer’s day. A smattering of people traverse the grounds. Horse-drawn carriages and streetcars make their way through the capital city’s streets alongside pedestrians and their children.
Hidden in the portrait is a scene where a man fondly greets a woman as a young girl in a dress plays behind him. Details like this are much more interesting than the presence of a hidden owl on today’s $1 bill.
On the Series of 1869 $2 Legal Tender Note, Thomas Jefferson’s portrait is located on the left-side of the front, making this the first United States currency note to feature a portrait of America’s third president.
Smillie’s engraving was adapted from Gilbert Stuart’s earlier portrait, with Jefferson’s figure flipped horizontally. A cropped version of this design is used on the current design of the seldom-used $2 Federal Reserve Note.
Rainbow notes were known for their anti-counterfeiting features. Smillie implemented a number of then state-of-the-art anti-counterfeiting elements in his design. Used extensively on the front and the back were intricate spirograph design knowns as guillochés. On the front of the note, a large numeral “2” is presented in guilloché. On this implementation, the design is rendered in negative (web in blank, background inked). On the back of the note, the guilloché designs on the notes show the web in positive. Two additional features that made the front of this note difficult to copy are a large Treasury emblem overlay and an undulating stream of green text that alternates UNITED STATES LEGAL TENDER NOTE and TWO DOLLARS.
The back of the note features six different guilloché designs and two legal provisos.
It’s interesting how the design is so intricate, yet doesn’t dominate the canvas. Its bold monochromatic green seems to jump off the paper. The note’s denomination is here rendered in three forms: the Roman numeral on a scalloped spirograph on the left; the Arabic numeral “2” inside a scalloped “peacock” shaped spirograph at the center; and on the right, TWO spelled out in a vertical alignment atop a scalloped spirograph repeated from the one used on the left. Twice appearing at the bottom of the design is a credit for the AMERICAN BANK NOTE COMPANY, NEW YORK.
On the left side of the central “2” on the reverse is a practically illegible anti-counterfeiting warning. The main text is overlaid on top of a repeating and ascending typographic design which reads TWO and 2 inside of a frame. The warning reads:
Counterfeiting or altering this note or passing any counterfeit or alteration of it or having in possession any false or counterfeit plate or impression of it or any paperer stock in imitation of the paper on which it is printing is felony and is punishable by $5,000 fine, or 15 years imprisonment at hard labor, or both.
Modern United States currency carries a similar notice. But notice the limitations imposed upon the 1869 Legal Tender Notes, which weren’t payable for import duties or interest on the public debt. Those fees had to be paid in gold.
The 1869 Legal Tender $2 Note in Today’s Market
The 1869 Legal Tender $2 Note is highly collectible, but an advisory is in order. Dabbling, even just a little, in 19th-century United States currency is bound to lead to a lengthy and costly pursuit of some of the most artistically stimulating numismatic objects in the American series.
The example photographed in this article was a rare Gem, graded 65 EPQ by PMG. It realized $31,200 USD at a March 23, 2023 Stack’s Bowers auction. A decent example in VF can be found for just over $1,000. A technically uncirculated examples start at $3,500 and up.