New Book from Smithsonian Covers the History of American Paper Money

Available for free download, "America's Paper Money: A Canvas for an Emerging Nation" is the first in-depth study of the imagery on the country's paper currency before 1900.

America's Paper Money is the first in-depth study of the imagery on the country's paper currency before 1900. Because paper money circulated everywhere, it was the country's most widely distributed iconography. Art historian William L. Pressly examines how for two centuries American creativity and technical ingenuity generated images that helped establish and enhance the nation's imagined self.

In 1690, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony became the first government in the Western world to issue paper money, it initiated this indigenous American art form of remarkable dynamism and originality. After the Revolutionary War, disillusioned by how quickly its promiscuous printing of Continental currency had led to hyperinflation, the U.S. government left it to private institutions, such as state-chartered banks, to carry on this artistic tradition. In 1861, in response to the Civil War, the federal government began taking charge of the paper-money supply, achieving its finest designs in the 1896 “Educational Series.” America's Paper Money celebrates this distinctive American art form, one that has for too long been overlooked or misunderstood.


  • PUBLICATION DATE: 12/20/2023
  • PAGE COUNT: 363
  • ISBN (ONLINE): 978-1-944466-66-4
  • CATGEORIES: Art history; North American history; American history; American paper currency; Numismatics
  • SERIES: Open Monographs




WILLIAM L. PRESSLY taught at Yale University, Duke University, and the University of Maryland, where he served as chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. He is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. Pressly received a Morse Fellowship from Yale University, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, a Mellon Senior Fellowship from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a Residency Fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art, and was a Smithsonian Institution Senior Fellow. His book James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning a New Public Art won the 2015 William M.D. Berger Prize for British Art History.


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