Silver certificates are American paper money that were redeemable in silver. Issued from 1878 to 1963, they were available in a variety of denominations, from $1 to $1,000. Silver certificates bore images of American presidents and famous men and women. Others featured elaborate engravings of historical scenes. Today, silver certificates are worth considerably more than their face value.
Origin of the Silver Certificate
The earliest silver certificates date from the late 19th century battle between the gold and silver standards. Until 1878, American money was valued in gold. Huge silver strikes in the American West created a demand for silver as currency. Mining interests wished to turn their newfound wealth into coin. Congress responded by allowing the assaying and minting of silver. Soon, the United States Treasury avoided much direct minting by issuing paper certificates in place of actual coin. These silver certificates stated that they were payable in silver dollars.
The early silver certificates were issued in amounts of up to $1,000. The larger denominations were quickly discontinued, and after 1896, the government produced only $1, $2 and $5 denominations. The certificates were an easy way to carry what was then a large amount of money. Actual silver dollars are quite heavy. Larger denominations would be prohibitively so. Yet at any time, the bearer of these instruments could exchange them for their actual value in silver coin or bullion.
Certificates as Works of Art
The artistic quality of American money reached its height in the silver certificate historical series of 1896. These certificates featured allegories of American history that were meant as educational tools for the nation's children. On the front of the 1896 $1 silver certificate, a goddess-like figure holds a young boy around the waist. With her free hand, she points at an idyllic vista that includes the Washington Monument. The reverse of the same certificate present detailed medallion portraits of Martha Washington and George Washington.
The real value of the certificates changed as the United States moved away from a full silver standard. From 1934 onward, silver certificates stated that they were redeemable in "silver" rather than "silver dollars." The public was being encouraged not to think of silver coins as interchangeable with paper money. The artistic quality of silver certificates declined as new issues abandoned fine portraits for symbols, such as the pyramid with the eye on top and the Great Seal of the United States.
Today, the rare educational series silver certificates are worth anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $20,000. Later issues vary in price by date and availability. The 1923 $1 silver certificate can be purchased for as little as $25, while a $5 certificate from the same years costs approximately $350. For the most part, silver certificates from 1934 and later are worth only 10 percent to 30 percent over their face value.