Silver certificates are an older form of U.S. currency; their value was backed by silver held in the U.S. Treasury, and they could be redeemed at the Treasury for silver dollars. An 1886 Act of Congress authorized the creation of a new series of silver certificates, and so it came to pass that the Secretary of the Treasury gave the Bureau of Engraving and Printing the task of designing and printing the new currency.
Claude M. Johnson, then Chief of the BEP, had definite ideas about the role of art in paper money. By 1893 Johnson and the BEP had decided on four artists - the muralists Edwin H. Blashfield, Will H. Low, C. S. Reinhart and Walter Shirlaw - to design the new currency, and planned to award a commission of $800 for each design the BEP accepted.
The noted artists, together with the BEP's talented engravers, created a new currency of unparalleled beauty - extraordinary designs, the likes of which had never been seen before in the U.S. and have never been equalled since.
The original plan was to eventually have this type of artistic and educational design used on all denominations of silver certificates from the one dollar to the one thousand dollar note. The $1, $2 and $5 denominations were printed and released.The plates for a $10 note were engraved but notes were never issued as the Act of Congress of August 4, 1886 did not authorized them.
Walter Shirlaw - Electricity Presenting Light To The World (1896)
The central winged allegorical figure of Electricity Presenting Light to the World appears as the primary theme of the note's obverse. Jupiter, at left, rides his steeds with thunderbolts. Fame, at lower center, blows her trumpet and Peace, with a dove, appears at the right. The Capitol Building and the White House appear in the background. On the reverse appear Union soldiers Grant and Sheridan.
Will H. Low - History instructing Youth (1896)
Will H. Low's design for the $1 note, entitled History Instructing Youth, shows a female History with a young student standing beside her, gesturing to an open book of history before her. An olive branch rests against the book, holding it open to show the Constitution of the United States upon the page. Both the Washington Memorial and the Capitol Dome can be seen in the background landscape. The outside border of the note shows 23 wreaths, each bearing the name of a noteworthy American - not surprisingly starting with Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, but also including such names as poet Henry Longfellow, inventor Robert Fulton, and author Nathaniel Hawthorne, among many others. The seal of the Treasury appears in the lower right. George and Martha Washington appear on the reverse.
Edwin H. Blashfield - Science Presenting Steam And Electricity To Commerce And Manufacture (1896)
A mature Science presents youthful Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture, also represented by mature ladies. This note was considered somewhat risque in its time. This design was originally planned to be used on the $50 note. Robert Fulton (American artist, engineer and inventor) and Samuel Morse (American painter and inventor) appear on the reverse.
Will H. Low - Peace and War (original design) (1896)