Research in progress: Did this press print Confederate currency?

By Joan Boudreau
Confederate currency

One of the oldest printing presses in our collection (one publication said it was "probably in use when Uncle Sam was in swaddling clothes") is also one of the most mysterious. Curator Joan Boudreau is on a mission to find out what role it played in Civil War history, from possibly printing General Robert E. Lee's farewell address to printing post-war newspapers. Enjoy this peek into her curatorial research.

Our Ramage printing press had a Civil War record "like a pensioned veteran," raved The Inland Printer, A Technical Journal Devoted to the Art of Printing in 1893

But what did the record entail? The publication reports it was "used by the Confederate States government in Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, during the war, and on it large amounts of Confederate money were printed."

Could this be confirmed to be true?

Ramage press

Confirming the use of any press for a particular printing job is always difficult, if not impossible.

Most letterpress printing presses (like the Ramage) were capable of producing material from the same type. Elements such as the size of the press bed or platen and the quality of paper factor into determinations about size, age, and authenticity of a printed document but in most cases these factors do not assist us in arriving at a definitive result.

In consultation with numismatic experts on the subject, I have begun an investigation about the possible relief or letterpress printing of some Confederate currency. The experts believe that the Confederate Treasury printed their notes using intaglio and lithographic, but not relief or letterpress printing methods. I have found, however, that some of the ten dollar notes purporting to have been printed by the Confederate Treasury, the 1861 ten dollar notes, were indeed, in some cases, overprinted with two relief or letterpress "X"s. Many such notes, genuine and counterfeit, used a red addition like the "X," originally for anti-counterfeiting purposes, but few were letterpress printed.

So this interesting observation offers the possibility, but not much more, that the Ramage could have printed some of the Confederate currency.

Confederate note

With further research, we may discover additional insights. But we also understand that the facts surrounding many stories handed down through time tend to be twisted; the facts become muddled or exaggerated. So who knows whether any of the above can be confirmed. Either way, we know our Ramage has an interesting story to tell.

Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about the pony press. You can see more Confederate money in our online collections.