Abraham Lincoln as Remembered Through American Paper Currency

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who died in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865. Lincoln had been shot in the head by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington the evening before. In this week’s Stack’s Bowers Currency Blog we take a look at Lincoln as remembered through our nation’s paper currency.

Lincoln, along with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, had pushed to develop a standard federal paper currency. The first of these federally issued notes, commonly referred to as “greenbacks,” entered circulation during Lincoln’s first term. Even before Lincoln’s death his image appeared on the $10 Demand Notes that entered circulation in 1862, along with $20 Compound Interest and Interest Bearing notes of 1864 and 1865. It is worth noting that Lincoln appeared on a piece of United States paper money before George Washington.

Long a fixture on our $5 denomination, the 16th president has appeared on at least 22 major design types over the last 150 plus years, in denominations ranging from 50 cents to $500. Not long after his death, Lincoln was added to 50 cent Fractional Currency notes of the Fourth Issue as well as the first design type of the $10 Legal Tender Note. Our recent March Baltimore currency auction featured a Fr. 95b 1863 Series $10 Legal Tender Note graded Gem Uncirculated 65 EPQ. This beautiful Lincoln note, lot 4096 of the auction, sold for an impressive $29,375.

Lincoln was also featured on the $100 Legal Tender Note beginning with the Series of 1869 and running through some minor design changes through the Series of 1880. A wonderful high grade example of one of these was sold in our August 2014 ANA currency auction. Lot 2251 featured a Fr. 172 Series of 1880 $100 Legal Tender Note graded Choice Uncirculated 64 by PMG that realized $164,500.

The first $5 notes to feature Lincoln came with the introduction of Federal Reserve Notes from the Series of 1914. Red Seal $5 FRNs like the PCGS Gem New 66 PPQ Fr. 837B seen in lot 4224 of our recent March auction were the first fives to feature Lincoln. That example sold for $15,275. Lincoln also appeared on Blue Seal 1914 $5 Federal Reserve Notes and the $5 Federal Reserve Bank Notes of 1915 and 1918.

One of the more popular $5 notes to feature Lincoln is the 1923 $5 Silver Certificate known popularly as the “Porthole” note. The type is represented by just a single Friedberg number (Fr. 282) and circulated alongside three other $5 types which also featured Lincoln. Our 2014 March Baltimore currency auction featured a PMG Gem Uncirculated 65 EPQ example (lot 3242) of the Porthole which sold for $6,463.

Also circulating during the same time period were $500 Gold Certificates of series dates 1882 and 1922. These ornate and colorful notes display a venerable portrait of Lincoln at left, a portrait different from those seen on the fives. The appearance of Lincoln on four different designs circulating at the same time speaks to the high regard in which he was held by the American people. This was about the same time in which the Lincoln Memorial was nearing completion in Washington D.C. Lot 4246 of our recent March currency auction was a Fr. 1217 Series of 1922 $500 Gold Certificate graded Very Fine 25 Net by PMG that featured Lincoln and realized $18,800.

Lincoln has appeared on the $5 denomination exclusively since the debut of small size notes with the series of 1928. Since that time he has appeared on every example of the $5 Legal Tender Note, Silver Certificate, Federal Reserve Note, Federal Reserve Bank Note, National Currency Note and also on World War II Emergency Hawaii and North Africa notes. Since 1928 the Lincoln Memorial has appeared on the backs of these notes. Lincoln’s portrait was basically unchanged from the Series of 1928 to the Series of 1995. When “big head” Federal Reserve Notes debuted in 1996, the posture of his shoulders was changed, although his intense gaze remained focused to the right. The portrait frame was removed with the introduction of the colorized notes for the Series of 2006 and it is this design that remains today.

Now, 150 years after his death, Lincoln remains as popular as ever and he routinely polls as one of the three greatest presidents of all time. Many political historians call him the greatest president of all time. With that popularity it is safe to say Lincoln’s likeness will grace the $5 denomination for many years to come. 

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