Katherine Mullen's blogs on coin collecting basics.

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The Story of the Currency of the Old National Bank of Grand Rapids

People who have grown up using a universal United States currency are often surprised to learn how diverse historical American coinage and currency is. Local and state banks issued their own money, backed by reserve currency, and did business for hundreds of years this way. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Lincoln signed the National Bank Act into law. This created the United States National Banking System, a prototype of what we use today:

“The National Banking Act (ch. 58, 12 Stat. 665; February 25, 1863), originally known as the National Currency Act, and was passed in the Senate by a narrow 23–21 vote. The main goal of this act was to create a single national currency and to eradicate the problem of notes from multiple banks circulating all at once. The Act established national banks that could issue notes which were backed by the United States Treasury and printed by the government itself. The quantity of notes that a bank was allowed to issue was proportional to the bank's level of capital deposited with the Comptroller of the Currency at the Treasury. To further control the currency, the Act taxed notes issued by state and local banks, essentially pushing non-federally issued paper out of circulation.”


Locally, one result of this act was the chartering and opening of the First National Bank of Grand Rapids in 1864 with Martin L. Sweet as president and Harvey J. Hollister as cashier. This institution flourished, increasing both its capital and directorate. In 1881, with its charter about to expire, the stockholders decided to reorganize it as the Old National Bank of Grand Rapids, increasing its directorate to 13 and its capital to $800,000. In 1915 The Old National took offices in the Pantlind Hotel, originally built as the Sweet Hotel by none other than its bank president, Martin Sweet. Grand Rapidians may recognize this building as the historic section of the Amway Grand Plaza.

Between the recharter in 1883 and 1929, the Old National Bank of Grand Rapids used the authority of The National Banking Act of 1863 (and subsequent legislation) to print $11,877,550 worth of national currency, including nine different types and denominations. The bank notes they printed are of similar design to other national bank notes. These bank notes are of interest to currency collectors and historians. Here is a list of the types and denominations they issued:

  • An 1882 $5 brown back note - 20,853 sheets

  • An 1882 $10 brown back note - 6,853 sheets

  • An 1882 $20 brown back note - 6,853 sheets

  • A 1902 $5 red seal note - 31,425 sheets, featuring President Benjamin Harrison

  • A 1902 $10 red seal note - 25,230 sheets, featuring President William McKinley

  • A 1902 $20 red seal note - 25,230 sheets, featuring Hugh McCulloch, U.S. Treasury Secretary

  • A 1902 $5 blue seal note - 179,092 sheets, featuring President Benjamin Harrison

  • A 1902 $10 blue seal note - 112,926 sheets, featuring President William McKinley

  • A 1902 $20 blue seal note - 112,926 sheets, featuring Hugh McCulloch, U.S. Treasury Secretary

ONBGR note.jpg

The notes in the 1902 series were printed from 1902-1908.  Many red seal notes are quite rare and valuable. The more sheets were printed, however, the less rare the notes are likely to be now. Values for these types of notes can be tricky to calculate and need a currency expert’s evaluation.

To make things more confusing for those studying the history of Grand Rapids, banking, or banking in Grand Rapids, there was also a Grand Rapids National Bank in operation during this same period. This bank was the “result of the consolidation of two of the city's early banks, the City National, incorporated February 17, 1865, and the Grand Rapids National, incorporated January 20, 1880...It merged with the National City in 1910, the name being changed to the Grand Rapids National City bank. Its capital was increased to $1,000,000, with a surplus of $200,000. In 1922, it took its original name, Grand Rapids National. In 1926 it purchased the assets of the Fourth National, which was then placed in liquidation.”


McKay Tower.jpeg

The National Bank of Grand Rapids was housed in a building that was and is a highlight of the Grand Rapids skyline; originally the Wonderly Building, it’s now the  McKay Tower.

The National Bank of Grand Rapids was a casualty of the Great Depression. By the time Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration day in March of 1933, nearly all of the banks in the nation were either closed or had been closed at one time. Roosevelt’s first act as president was to declare a national four-day bank holiday beginning March 6. When banks reopened, NBGR was one of six Grand Rapids banks forced into liquidation or reorganization. Very few banks survived the Great Depression intact.

Most of the banks Grand Rapidians have used over the years have come and gone, either by bankruptcy or acquisition. Their history can only be found in pictures of old buildings or as a part of an historical account (such as a Great Depression narrative). The Old National Bank of Grand Rapids, however, left behind printed proof of its existence in its currency, and some of it is quite collectible. If you have an interest in this type of historical currency, Mullen Coins would love to help you with further exploration.

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