What about checks, dad?

— Isaac

With the government shut down for what hopefully will be a short winter’s nap, I thought it appropriate to show a sliver of one of the more obscure numismatic collectibles — US government checks.

Civil War era check drawn on The First National Bank of Philadelphia as a designated depository of the United States by an army quartermaster.
Post Civil War check drawn on the Assistant Treasurer of the United States at New York by army paymaster Edward S. Moore.

Up through the Civil War the US government operated on a decentralized fiscal system. The US Treasury in Washington, DC was the core of the system but a significant amount of money was held by Assistant Treasurers located in big cities and in local banks that were designated depositories of the United States. On the frontier, Receivers of Public Money were located in the settlements and had charge of the federal accounts most of which were the result of the sale of federal lands through the Land Office of the Department of the Interior.

In the 1870s the system was centralized with the US Treasury taking more direct responsibility for government finances. At this same time, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began printing checks for use by the various departments of the federal government. Check printing reached its aesthetic apex in the late 19th and early 20th Century with finely engraved vignettes serving as the primary means of counterfeit protection.

The Bureau of Engraving chose large portraits of American government officials for the main design of US government checks. The portraits were used until the mid-1910s when the design for all US government checks was standardized with a very basic design. Three of the portrait checks will be discussed.

This first check was issued by the Library of Congress and is drawn on the US Treasury in Washington. The portrait is Salmon P. Chase. Chase is an odd choice for a check from the Library of Congress.

Chase was Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States. There was a direct connection between most of the people who appeared on US government checks and the agency for whom the check was printed. That does not appear to be the case here.

Bernard R. Green
(Library of Congress)

The check is signed by Bernard R. Green who was Superintendent of the Library Building and Grounds. Curiously, the Superintendent was responsible for acquiring books for the Library of Congress and not the Librarian.

Edward Boker Sterling

The payee is E(dward) B(oker) Sterling. Sterling was a banker and a pioneer in the stamp collecting field. He authored one of the first catalogs of United States stamps. In 1909, Sterling wrote an extensive family history. It is possible that this check was written to purchase a copy as the check indicates it was used to pay for books. Sterling was also a coin and paper money collector. He may have forsaken the 45 cents represented by the check to save it for his collection.

This next check was issued in 1910 through the Assistant Treasurer in Chicago for the Department of Commerce and Labor. It features a portrait of President William McKinley. This same portrait of McKinley was also used on checks for the Philippines.

This check is for 25 cents and the memo line indicates it was for expenses for the 13th Census. The Bureau of the Census is part of the Department of Commerce.

The check is payable to George Johannes. The calligraphy of the payee line and the written amount is remarkable and unusual for a government check. Unusual until you look at the signature and the check number. The signature is G. Johannes and it is check number 1. George Johannes was the Chief Disbursing Clerk for the 13th Census. He undoubtedly wrote check number 1 to himself in the amount of a quarter as a souvenir.

The last check was issued by the Government Printing Office in 1912. It is for a nickel and was used to pay for a hand stamp from J. Baumgarten & Sons Co.

The dour-looking man in the vignette is John D. Defrees. Defrees was an Indianapolis newspaper publisher who was appointed by President Lincoln as Public Printer, the head of the Government Printing Office. He remained in that position until 1869 when he was removed by Congress. He was re-appointed by President Hayes in 1876. He resigned shortly before his death in 1882.

I looked for a more flattering image of Defrees but this picture from findagrave.com shows the Bureau of Engraving vignette captured the subject very well.

This uninspiring design replaced the large portrait style checks. It was used until the 1980s.

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