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Fractional Currency of Civil War Era

December 31, 1987|DON ALPERT

Question: Would you be able to tell me anything about a 2 1/2x1 3/4-inch piece of paper that reads on one side (brown) "Postage Currency furnished only by the assistant treasurers & designated depositaries of the U.S. Receivable for postage stamps at any U.S. Post Office. U.S. Postage five cents. National Bank Note Co. N.Y." On the reverse side (printed in black) it states: "Exchangeable for U.S. Notes by any Assistant Treasurer or designated U.S. Depository in sums not less than five dollars receivable in payment of all dues to the United States less than five dollars. Act approved July 17, 1862. BC."--N.H.

Answer: What you've described in the legalese of the day was known as postage currency during the Civil War and is called fractional currency by today's collectors. It was made necessary at the onset of the Civil War when hoarding of coins became so pervasive that ordinary commerce was greatly restricted. The fractional notes were issued from 1862 to 1876 in denominations of 3 cents to 50 cents.

At first, regular postage stamps were used to alleviate the coin shortage, but the stamps proved impractical, so the new small currency was authorized. The government issued more than $368 million worth of these fractional pieces, and about $2 million face value is believed to still be in the hands of collectors.

During its time, fractional currency was derisively called shinplasters , a term coined during the Revolutionary War when the small Continental notes had little value and were perhaps better suited as leg bandages. As indicated, fractional currency is plentiful and worth about $3 to $5.

Coin Calendar

Saturday and Sunday--The Pasadena Coin and Stamp Expo, for the first time under the sponsorship of the Numismatic, Philatelic and Monetary Conference, will open the New Year for local collectors. Hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. The site is the Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena.

Sunday--The 25th Coin and Hobby Show will be hosted by the San Bernardino County Coin Club at the National Orange Show Grounds in the Citrus Building, 689 South E St., San Bernardino, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A donation of $1 includes a bronze medallion honoring the 40th anniversary of both the U.S. Air Force and the San Bernardino County Coin Club.

Coin News

Only 54 gold "essai" sets are being issued in conjunction with the third annual Swiss Helvetia series. The limited sets are identical to regular issues except for the addition of the word essai beneath the denomination. The coin (pictured) features the seated allegorical figure of Helvetia and the date, as in the past. The new reverse depicts the Lion of Lucerne. The issue price for the two-piece gold essai set is $1,595. For information contact Helvetia Trading Corp. of America, 16311 Ventura Blvd., Suite 550, Encino, Calif. 91436; telephone (818) 986-3800.

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