General Francis E. Spinner: Watchdog of the Treasury and Father of Fractional Currency

Posted on 8/18/2015

One of the nation’s most respected political figures of the nineteenth century, and for decades just as recognizable at the Presidents he served under, was General Francis E. Spinner.

General Francis E. Spinner was born to rather humble surroundings in German Flats, New York (later Mohawk, NY) on January 21, 1802, shortly after his parents emigrated from Baden, Germany. His early years gave no hint of the heights he would attain, being apprenticed first to a confectioner and later to a saddler. His fortunes began to change in his early twenties, when he rapidly became a merchant in Herkimer, New York, married, and was chosen Lieutenant of the 26th Regiment, New York State Artillery.

The next few decades brought many more changes, as he took an active role in the affairs of his community and the State Militia. He quickly advanced from Lieutenant to Major General of the Militia, became one of the founders of the Mohawk Valley Bank, served as Auditor of the Port of New York, and, in 1854, was elected to Congress, where he served as Chairman of the Congressional Committee on Accounts.

General Francis E. Spinner Vignettes

Although twice reelected to Congress by large majorities, he declined to run for reelection in 1860. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe just good luck, but a few months later on March 4, 1861 President Lincoln appointed him Treasurer of the United States at the urging of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Thus began the public service for which he would become famous.

Politics in the 1860s was not much different than it is today. Thousands of civil service positions were meted out based as rewards for party loyalty as much as on qualification. Spinner measured up well in both areas, but unlike typical party hacks, he brought a high degree of dedication, integrity, ability and forward thinking to his post. Under his leadership, the Treasury grew and modernized. New printing processes and equipment were introduced, and experimentation that led to many of today’s anti-counterfeiting measures took place.

Up until the Civil War, the Treasury Department (and banking in general) was totally male-dominated. Spinner realized that the shortage of men due to the needs of the war, and the great untapped wealth of “man" power available presented a perfect solution. Today the fight is for equality in jobs and pay, but at the start of the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony was known for her temperance and anti-slavery positions. Her suffrage activities burgeoned and Spinner’s staffing of the Treasury with women occurred almost simultaneously in the early 1860s, yet there seems to be no connection between the two. Spinner’s notion of employing women to handle money, even in low level clerical positions, was tantamount to heresy at the time (Ms. Anthony was arrested, tried and convicted simply for voting), but it was a beginning, and it worked. Harper’s Monthly ran illustrations at the time of rooms full of women counting, trimming, and inspecting sheets of currency. Harper’s, and other publications, also ran stories of Spinner’s dedication to the economy and the Treasury, reaching the point that he spent many nights sleeping at the Treasury, guarding the nation’s money supply. Apocryphal or not, the stories earned him the sobriquet “Watchdog of the Treasury.”

The war effort also exacted a price in day-to-day commerce. By the end of 1861 small change all but disappeared as the need for armaments exhausted the nation’s supply of base metals. Spinner’s proposal for the issuance of a form of postage without glue that could circulate to make small change gave birth to Postage Currency and Fractional Currency. As a reward, the likeness of the “Father of Fractional Currency” was used on the 50 Cent notes of the Third Issue. That the 50 Cent note was possibly the most common denomination in daily circulation (you could get a fancy dinner, a good cigar and a newspaper for fifty cents, and still get change back) further served to make Spinner so easily recognizable. The notes also bore his distinctive signature, produced with a unique three-pointed pen (one of which survives in the Smithsonian). In addition to their other duties, the women Spinner employed were also trained to use the pen, and signed the bulk of the autographed notes of the Third Issue.

United States Fractional Currency—Fifty Cents

United States Tobacco Currency—Ten Cents

United States Postage Currency—One Cent

The great integrity of the man, coupled with his popularity with the people, gave Spinner a remarkably long career. In an appointive job that could have richly rewarded numerous politicos, Spinner lasted for more than fourteen years, serving under three Presidents and six Secretaries of the Treasury. An exemplary record of which his Catholic priest—turned Protestant minister father would certainly have been proud. At least in his father’s mind it would have made up for Spinner’s quick temper and salty language, described by Register of the Treasury Lucius Chittenden as “colorful”.

Despite his temper and language, Spinner was a politician, and knew when to be tactful. In a letter dated Dec. 17, 1888 Spinner praises five of the Treasury Secretaries under whom he served. Of the sixth, he writes “There was still another Secretary, of whom I prefer not to speak—he has found his level” (a prescient reference to the “Peter Principle”). It was that unnamed Secretary (Benjamin Bristow) with whom Spinner had a serious disagreement over policy, prompting Spinner’s resignation in 1875, in his mid-seventies. Spinner retired to Pablo Beach, Florida, and for more than a decade enjoyed studying ancient Greek and responding to people seeking autographs. He was active until succumbing to cancer at the age of eighty-eight. One of the latest letters known from Spinner was penned on November 4, 1885. In it he explains that the Third Issue Fractional notes with red backs were printed before the customary Treasury “greenbacks” and were “supposed to be retained as curiosities and thus add to the resources of the Government.” Even suffering advanced cancer and going blind, Spinner took the time to answer a burning question that plagued Fractional collectors for more than another century!

A letter to a well-wisher from Pablo Beach dated January 24, 1886 is signed simply “Work, Watch and Wait is the motto of F.E. Spinner.”


Wilkens, Ernest C. (1972). F.E. Spinner and Fractional Currency. Essay-Proof Journal, Vol, 29, No. 3.

This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in the piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.

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