100 Greatest American Currency Notes Series: Electricity Presenting Light To the World $5 "Educational Note," Series 1896

While we are very early on in our dissection of Whitman Publishing’s 100 Greatest American Currency Notes publication, we have yet to discuss a top five or even a top ten entry. It is hard to imagine what the decision-making process was curating this list considering the astronomical amount of currency notes out there. However, authors Q. David Bowers and David M. Sundman were able to do so for this first and perhaps only edition of the series.

This top five note derives from a desire to create detailed and artistic motifs on early denomination notes. While a number of designs were created for nearly ten different denominations, only three were ever produced and these were deemed ‘Educational Notes.’ The note from this entry will be one of those three and is one of the very few ever printed or known to be printed.

#5 - Electricity Presenting Light To the World $5 “Educational Note,” Series of 1896

Thomas F. Morris signed on to be the chief of the Engraving Division at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in early November of 1893. At this time, it was already heavily in the works to commission artists to create intricate designs for a new series of silver certificates. Serious works or motifs at the time had been done for the denominations of $1, $2, $5, and $10 notes while sketches were merely done for larger denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000 notes. However, it was only the $1, $2, and $5 denominations that got printed and they are now referred to as the ‘Educational Notes.’

The Electricity Presenting Light to the World design, or the Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World as some would call it, was created by Walter Shirlaw. The face of the note featured a number of compelling figures and is, according to authors Bowers and Sundman, one of the most dynamic groups ever seen on American currency. The “presentation of electricity” is illustrated with a winged goddess in the center of the face of the note holding a lighted bulb. To her bottom left just beneath her is the goddess Fame with her trumpet. The right of the note features the goddess Peace with a dove and the left features Jupiter symbolizing force.

On the back of the $5 note are the portraits of two important American figures. The left features U.S. General Grant and the right features U.S. General Philip Sheridan. Designed by Thomas F. Morris, the featured U.S. generals were a part of the Treasury Department’s conscious effort to feature Civil War military heroes (Union side only) on American currency. The center of the back of the note is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a winged female.

While the $2 and $5 notes were Series 1896, they were never actually released until 1897. This $5 note has only an estimated number of 2,500-3,000 notes known to exist.

The historic market value for this note in Gem Crisp Uncirculated condition in 1960 was $275. By 2006 when this publication was released, the note increased to $16,000.