Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic

Finalist for the 2021 Hagley Prize in Business History

Runner-up, 2021 Wismer Award for Best Book from the Society of Paper Money Collectors

Available now from Penn Press.

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Read a review of Bank Notes in Shinplasters by Ann Daly in the Journal of Social History

Read a review of Bank Notes and Shinplasters by Katie Moore in the Journal of the Early Republic

Read a review of Bank Notes and Shinplasters (along with Emma Hart’s Trading Spaces, Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery, and Jeffrey Sklansky’s Sovereign of the Market) by Hannah Farber in the William and Mary Quarterly

Listen to my interview on the Podopticon about Bank Notes and Shinplasters.

Listen to my interview about Bank Notes and Shinplasters for the Who Makes Cents? podcast.

Watch me discuss Bank Notes and Shinplasters on the C-Span 3 series American History TV. The video comes from my book talk hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society

Listen to my interview about Bank Notes and Shinplasters for the New Books Network

Listen to my interview about Bank Notes and Shinplasters on the Age of Jackson Podcast

Watch me discuss Bank Notes and Shinplasters at the History Summit 2020

“Prior to the Civil War, thousands of different, ornately engraved bank notes supplied most of the money in circulation. In marvelous detail, Joshua R. Greenberg takes us back to the anxieties of that era. He deftly examines how every single cash transaction was shot through with uncertainty and arbitrage, as ordinary citizens struggled with the perils of counterfeit notes, fluctuating exchange rates, and worthless paper. In his revealing reconstruction of a monetary world long lost to us, Greenberg ultimately explains how these mundane exchanges shaped the seismic political events of the day, from the Bank War to the Civil War. A splendid book.”—Stephen Mihm, author of A Nation of Counterfeiters

“Joshua R. Greenberg skillfully provides a history of how everyone in the early American republic pushed, pondered, purloined, politicized, and polemicized the thousands of material objects that circulated as their money. Historiographically significant and beautifully written, Bank Notes and Shinplasters will be of interest to anyone interested in the history of capitalism.”—Jessica Lepler, author of The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis

“In this persuasive and entertaining book, Joshua R. Greenberg shows that early republic Americans had their mind on their money and their money on their mind. They put bank notes—valuable and counterfeit, pristine and soiled—to mundane and surprising commercial, cultural, and political uses. Greenberg traces the circulation of these bills as material objects from bank vaults, to store tills, to consumers’ pockets and back again. In so doing, he makes compelling use of them himself to register the contested economic and emotional meanings that these ubiquitous instruments had for Americans who held and passed them. I love this book.”—Brian Luskey, author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Before Civil War greenbacks and a national bank network established a uniform federal currency in the United States, the proliferation of loosely regulated banks saturated the early American republic with upwards of 10,000 unique and legal bank notes. This number does not even include the plethora of counterfeit bills and the countless shinplasters of questionable legality issued by unregulated merchants, firms, and municipalities. Adding to the chaos was the idiosyncratic method for negotiating their value, an often manipulative face-to-face discussion consciously separated from any haggling over the price of the work, goods, or services for sale. In Bank Notes and Shinplasters, Joshua R. Greenberg shows how ordinary Americans accumulated and wielded the financial knowledge required to navigate interpersonal bank note transactions.

Locating evidence of Americans grappling with their money in fiction, correspondence, newspapers, printed ephemera, government documents, legal cases, and even on the money itself, Greenberg argues Americans, by necessity, developed the ability to analyze the value of paper financial instruments, assess the strength of banking institutions, and even track legislative changes that might alter the rules of currency circulation. In his examination of the doodles, calculations, political screeds, and commercial stamps that ended up on bank bills, he connects the material culture of cash to financial, political, and intellectual history.

The book demonstrates that the shift from state-regulated banks and private shinplaster producers to federally authorized paper money in the Civil War era led to the erasure of the skill, knowledge, and lived experience with banking that informed debates over economic policy. The end result, Greenberg writes, has been a diminished public understanding of how currency and the financial sector operate in our contemporary era, from the 2008 recession to the rise of Bitcoin.