Civil War-era cash helps South Carolina make money

Friday, June 5, 2009
This May 5 photo shows a $100 note that will be preserved in the state's archives in Columbia, S.C. The holder of the note received 50 cents on the dollar when it was turned in after the Civil War. South Carolina is selling worthless money to make some cold, hard cash. (Mary Ann Chastain ~ Associated Press)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina is selling money to make money.

State officials have quietly picked through boxes of Civil War state currency and auctioned it on eBay, providing the state archives with an influx of cash amid tight budgets.

"These are very bad times. This helps us a great deal. We can pay for things we could never afford otherwise," said Charles Lesser, a senior archivist at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

About 40 boxes of the currency were supposed to be destroyed more than a century ago, but some of the bills were tucked away in the Statehouse basement and eventually moved to the state archives. They sat there largely undisturbed for four decades and only recently did officials realize they could sell the cash.

The archives have made about $200,000 selling hundreds of the bills over the past couple of years. Most of that money was made in an auction of uncut sheets of the currency last year, but every week or so, South Carolina puts a couple of loose bills up for sale online. The old money is a little wider, whiter and lighter than today's paper money.

Last month, a bill from the Bank of South Carolina worth $4 when it was issued almost 150 years ago fetched nearly $400.

The man behind the project is 74-year-old Jack Meyer, a retired University of South Carolina history professor who volunteers about eight hours a month to sift through the boxes and find bills in good enough condition to sell. In 11/2 years he's made it through one of the 40 boxes.

"I've got job security," he quips.

When the South lost the Civil War, Confederate money became worthless and the new Reconstruction government in South Carolina refused to cover the paper money issued by the state when it wasn't a part of the U.S.

Several other Southern states went through a similar process after the Civil War, but state archives director Rodger Stroup said as far as he knows, only South Carolina failed to destroy all of its currency, bringing this unexpected windfall more than a century later.

Meyer, the retired professor, spends every other Tuesday at a simple table in a third-floor room of the archives armed with a magnifying glass and bundles of bills. He tries to find bills that aren't wrinkled or torn, or look particularly aged. It's tedious work that reminds the occasionally acerbic academic of the decades he spent in the Air Force.

"It's very interesting. It's like the military -- 90 percent boredom, 10 percent excitement," he said.

The excitement comes at the least expected times, like the day Meyer turned over a $1 note and found a handwritten message: "The last of fifty-thousand and this is going for whiskey."

That bill was preserved and will stay in the state archives, along with the best samples of every other distinct kind of currency Meyer finds as he goes through the boxes.

For each sale, the South Carolina archives pays a small fee to eBay and to the state surplus agency that handles the transaction. State law prevents the proceeds from going toward salaries, but allows the purchase of supplies like acid-free storage boxes and projects like digitizing frequently viewed documents, said Stroup, the archives director.

The one big purchase the archives made was a scanner that has been used to store several large, one-of-a-kind maps from South Carolina's early days. That allows historians to pore over the documents without any risk of damaging them, Lesser said.

Archivists have set aside several potentially high-value items for a future live auction. Those include notes signed by Confederate Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, a former South Carolina governor.

The bills, issued during the Civil War, provided information on what people thought was important to the then-rebel government. Plenty of bills have pictures of John C. Calhoun, the U.S. senator and one-time vice president from South Carolina best known for laying the foundation of secession by advocating that a state could ignore any federal laws it thought were unconstitutional. Others have Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington or South Carolina's own Francis Marion.

Meyer can only theorize why workers back in the 1880s didn't follow orders and destroy the cash.

"I think they were lazy," Meyer said. "But this time it worked out for the good."

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