Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Print and Currency Collectors today have difficulty in finding an original of the Currier small-folio lithograph ‘The Express Train’. It is rare, popular, and seldom offered for sale. Beyond the belief that it was produced about 1850, was perhaps put on stone and lettered by J. Schultz, and was "a scene on the New York and Erie," almost nothing is known about it. Yet millions of Currier's contemporaries saw and handled the subject, not only as produced by Currier, but also in slightly different versions on some 20 types of American bank notes between 1855 and 1865.

The first known use of the subject by a bank-note engraver occurred on a note circulated about 1855 by the Moosam River Bank, in Maine. It was also used before 1860 as the central vignette on the following notes: $10, Bank of Canandaigua, New York; $8, Bank of Cape Fear, Wilmington, North Carolina; $5, Bank of Columbus, Georgia; $1, Bank of Newburg, New York; $5, Bank of Port Jervis, New York; $20, Bank of Sing Sing, New York; $1, $2, $5, $10, Central Bank of New Jersey, Hightstown, New Jersey; $5, Holliston Bank, Massachusetts; $5, Ocoee Bank, Cleveland, Tennessee; $1, People's Bank, New York City; $20, Union Bank, Dover, New Jersey; $1, Union Bank of Weymouth and Braintree, Weymouth, Massachusetts.

A fine example is the vignette of the $5 note of the Bank of Columbus, dated Jan. 1st, 1859, and produced by Bald, Cousland & Company, New York and Philadelphia. It differs from the Currier version in the wheels of the tender and the baggage car, in the deletion of the parasol, of the passengers at the windows, and of the locomotive handrails and wheel guard, and in the addition of the telegraph poles and lines. Just how this copying came about is not known. F. A. Conningham, in his ‘Currier& Ives’, says that Currier issued many of his prints with the idea that they might be used by advertisers; he may have sold the design, outright or on royalty, to Bald, Cousland. It is also possible that the artist sold the original design to Currier, and a later copy, corrected to the times by the inclusion of the telegraph equipment, to Bald, Cousland. A third explanation is that Currier and the note engraver copied from a common source. In any case, the absence of the telegraph poles and lines indicates that the Currier lithograph was the earlier version.

Conningham says: "The earliest train pictured by Currier was a small folio called ‘The Express Train’. It is a scene on the New York and Erie which took twenty years to build and opened in 1851. The print is undated, but it is believed to have been issued before 1850. This is the only print of a locomotive which doesn't have a headlight. In those days trains ran only in the daytime and headlights were unnecessary." I have tried to confirm these statements, and have instead found evidence which renders them debatable. Spoked wheels were last used on the New York and Erie passenger cars in 1846, in which year solid wheels became standard equipment; it was not until 1848 that the first New York and Erie locomotive was fitted with a cab; and at least one New York and Erie train rolled for some five hours after sundown, and probably used a headlight - a timetable dated May 25,1843, shows a train on the New York-Middletown run arriving at midnight.

An examination of a photograph of the original subject discloses, along the top line of the bridge about one and a half inches from the right-hand margin, the symbol "C45." It has been suggested that this represents the initial letter of the surname of the artist (Cousland?) and the year (1845) in which the drawing was made.

The most unusual use of this subject was on notes created and circulated by the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1852, nine years before the establishment of the Confederacy, W. L. Ormsby, an able banknote engraver of New York City, wrote a scholarly treatise on note counterfeiting and its prevention. To demonstrate the ease with which counterfeiters produced bogus notes, he created a bastard vignette from the Bald, Cousland version of the ‘Express Train’: "The Vignette in the Center of the Bill, was copied from a Bank Note; the sea view, and the Steamer, being introduced instead of a Bridge." The new vignette was pirated and extensively used by Southern note producers on the following: $1, State of Georgia note, January 1, 1863, issue; $100, "Train of Cars," interest-bearing Confederate Treasury notes, various dates of 1862 and 1863; $1,000, Confederate States of America bond, issue of 1861; and on other state and private bank notes issued within the Confederacy.

It is believed that at least one million notes (legal, counterfeit, and bogus) bearing the basic ‘Express Train’ design circulated in the northern and southern states. Thus The ‘Express Train’ in its different versions was seen and enjoyed (!) by more of Currier's contemporaries than any of his other works, and must be considered an important contribution to the history of American banknote production.