The thrill of the hunt is what drives collectors of national bank notes to seek out previously unrecorded notes. It is amazing that the discovery of notes are routinely made so many years after they circulated. Similarly, the body of information about national bank notes in general has room for discovery. The story here presents the answer to the question of why star notes were not made for national bank notes and how the Bureau of Engraving and Printing dealt with misprinted nationals. What’s great for collectors is that replacement nationals can be identified, providing a new field ripe for hunting.
Collectors of U.S. paper money are familiar with “star notes,” which are used to replace type notes damaged or misprinted during the production process. Star notes have serial numbers that are numbered independently and are not identical to the notes they replaced.
The practice of replacing defective national bank notes with stars was not adopted at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (who ordered the printing of national bank currency from the BEP) determined that it was important to preserve the integrity of serial number sequences. Exact replacements had to be made for defective currency.
When an error was discovered, an unnumbered sheet was drawn from the inventory of currency for the appropriate bank and brought to the BEP’s Numbering Division, and numbered identically to the defective sheet, which was then destroyed.
A technological quirk allows us to identify large size replacement national bank notes. In late 1903, the BEP replaced its aging paging machines (that applied serial numbers to currency one at a time) with high speed rotary numbering machines (that applied all serial numbers on a sheet in a single pass). It was counterproductive to use these new devices to make a single replacement sheet because the overhead to reset the numbering heads for a single sheet was simply too costly. Instead, the BEP retained the old paging machines to make the replacement sheets. The fonts used on these two kinds of serial number presses were distinctively different. Therefore, we are able to identify notes printed after 1903 that were made as replacements. These notes bear the fonts of the old presses. The window for identifying large size replacement nationals ended in 1920, when the paging machines were finally retired.
There are two criteria for identifying large size replacement nationals. The notes 1) must bear fonts of the old style paging machines, and 2) must have been printed after 1903.
Most Series of 1882 Brown Backs and the earliest of Series of 1902 Red Seals were printed before 1903, and therefore have old style serial number fonts – but they cannot be identified as replacements. How do we know when a note was printed? For national bank notes, we can rely on the Treasury serial numbers. Nationals with serial numbers higher than those in Table 1 were printed after 1903.
|Plate Layout||Brown Backs||Red Seals|
|10-10-10-10||All printed after 1903|
Table 1: Approximate starting serial numbers of rotary press numbering at the BEP.
All blue sealed nationals were printed after 1903, so the second criterion is automatically satisfied. However, there was a change to some paging machine wheels around 1915 – the 4s resembled the new fonts – so 1882 Value Backs and 1902 Plain Backs (both printed after 1915) are seen with these “hybrid” fonts.
As of December 2020, a total of 189 large size replacement national bank notes have been observed. Nearly all of these notes were found by screening images from National Bank Note Census and Heritage Archives. Over 15,000 candidates were reviewed. With about 35% of the notes in the census having images, we may infer that the total population of replacements among known national bank notes is about only 550-600 notes.
Nearly 60% of the known replacements are #1 notes. As the first notes to be run through the numbering press, they had a higher likelihood of set up problems such as misalignment or over-inking. These notes were also the most vulnerable to damage due to smudging and poor handling.
In the same way, first-of-run sheets were often found to be unsuitable for use and were replaced. Among the known non #1 replacement notes are bank serials such as 301, 3201, 7751 and 25901, which are from the first sheets of their respective printing runs. Approximately 10% of the non #1 replacements are of this genre.
By type, the world of large size replacement nationals is somewhat inverted. Rare is common, and common is rare. Series of 1902 Red Seals make up about half of all known replacements. Similarly, about 20% of #1 Red Seals and third charter #1 Date Backs are replacements. The ratio of replacements to all notes is considerably lower for non #1 notes, coming in between 0.1% to 0.5% for the various types.
Updated December 2023.
Table 2. Tables showing the number of known large size replacement national bank notes. The top table includes #1 notes, whereas the bottom table excludes them.
Hewitt, R. Shawn and Huntoon, Peter. “Identification of Series of 1882 and 1902 National Bank Replacement Notes in the 1903-1915 Period.” Paper Money, No. 281, September/October 2012, p. 378. Carrollton, TX: Society of Paper Money Collectors (2012).
Hewitt, R. Shawn. “Large Size Replacement National Bank Notes, 1903-1920.” Handout for seminar at 2013 International Paper Money Show. Memphis, TN: Society of Paper Money Collectors (2013).Download Memphis 2013 Presentation Download Memphis 2013 Handout LSRN Census 2021 Update