Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Evolution of Museums and the Geneva Historical Society

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

Charles Willson Peale is considered the father of American museums. (A painting by his son Rembrandt hangs in the main hallway of Rose Hill.) In 1786 he opened a museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which included an extensive portrait gallery; Peale justified this by saying man was at the top of the natural order. He charged 25 cents and felt that he offered “rational amusement,” what we might call leisure time education.

The Artist in His Museum (self portrait, 1822)
Peale pioneered elements still found in today’s museums. He presented “blockbuster” attractions such as a mastodon skeleton excavated in Ulster County, New York. He offered hands-on activities and evening lectures, and in 1816 provided gaslight for the comfort of his visitors. He also experienced challenges that are still with us. His museum struggled to maintain financial support, and did not have a good succession plan for survival after Peale’s death.

While Peale’s museum was almost immediately popular, the Geneva Historical Society had a longer, slower arc. Formed in 1883, membership was restricted to white males over 45 years old who had been born in Geneva. The mere announcement, by Rev. Dr. Hogarth, of an organizational meeting sparked an editorial in the Geneva Gazette of May 18, 1883:

“It would seem feasible to extend the membership so as to embrace all who have resided in Geneva 45 years or longer…it would appear that in an organization of this kind it is desirable to enjoy the fraternity of the older settlers, as all would become deeply interested in reminiscences to the very oldest period attainable. The editor of this paper is ‘barred out’ under the call, tho’ his residence in Geneva dates from 1823 – extending over a period of about 60 years. Open the doors, Dr. Hogarth!”

The main activity was reminiscing about people and events within the members’ memory. Until the 1940s, the historical society went through a cycle of a few years of activity followed by numerous years of dormancy. In 1941, the group had its first space at 501 South Main Street and began collecting and displaying artifacts. In 1946, the historical society was forced to move to vacant classrooms in the old Junior High School until 1950, then went to Lewis Street School for the next ten years. In 1960, Beverly Chew gave his home at 543 South Main Street, which remains the historical society’s headquarters.

Collection and display of artifacts was haphazard in the early years. Objects were often accepted for the following reasons: “it’s old”; “it’s very nice”; “my great-uncle brought it back from his trip to _____ in _____.” As collections outgrew the historical society’s space, things were put everywhere with few labels. Visitors loved it, and many think of that time as the good old days.

The pattern continued when the historical society moved into 543 South Main Street, only with more room to spread out. Objects were displayed for their own sake and there were few records kept about them. The donor’s name might be written down, but little other information as everyone at the historical society knew the donor and his or her story.

Change began in the 1980s, the golden age of New York State grant money. The staff identified important topics in Geneva history that hadn’t been exhibited, and for which we had little information and artifacts. These exhibits included African Americans in Geneva, the waterfront, the nursery industry, and the local impact of World War II. Outside researchers were hired to do oral history interviews, collect photos and artifacts, and write and design the exhibits. The historical society published books from these projects which are still in circulation.

Today we focus our collecting and exhibiting on areas most relevant to Geneva’s history. We look for provenance, or a Geneva-related story, when accepting artifacts; we create exhibits that connect to the city as we know it now. (Some connections, such as the War of 1812, are harder to sell than others.) We also move outside our building and reach out to audiences where they are, rather than wait for them to find us. While we don’t have a mastodon and use LED lights rather than gas, we’re still following many of Charles Willson Peale’s ideas.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marian Cruger Coffin

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

There is no doubt about it, I am a frustrated gardener.  When I was a child my family, most of who could root a rosebush by sticking a cutting under a mason jar, excelled at growing many different types of plants.  My grandmother, Lucy, had a garden that was the envy of her neighborhood.  The lot was 40’ by 100’ and the house, which was a double, and garage took up most of the land.  What was left was a small patch of lawn roughly 15’ by 18’ surrounded by every type of decorative plant imaginable.  There was even a vegetable patch next to the garage that produced beans, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and some raspberries.  The flower garden and the vegetable garden were separated by a hedge of filbert trees, much to the joy of the local squirrel population.  Lucy could make any plant grow.  Not just survive but thrive!  My parents and my aunt learned from her and so my childhood was filled with decorative and food producing plants that grew lavishly on our property.  My parents composted, practiced crop rotation in the vegetable garden and impressed me into service for many hours of hoeing, weeding by hand and picking fresh vegetables. 

My sister and I have tried to follow in their footsteps, but I will admit that my thumb is more of a pale sea foam green than the verdant grass green of my relatives.  My sister does well with her horticultural endeavors, but mine peaked at about age 30 when I had a large collection of blueberries that produced buckets of wonderful fruit.  Since then I have moved to a home in the city where I have a little space and opportunity to garden, but lack the time.  I look with envy upon my friends who maintain gorgeous gardens and harvest vast amounts of tomatoes, beans, beets, onions and cut flowers from a piece of land sometimes no bigger than 25’ by 25’. Lately, the best I manage is a Christmas cactus that thrives on benign neglect.

I am even more aware of my horticultural shortcomings because some of the best green thumbs in the world once lived here in Geneva.  Between the nurseries, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, fruit farms and wineries thousands of local people have worked developing plants and designing gardens.

Marian Cruger Coffin and her mother, Alice. 

One of those folks was famed landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin.  After the death of her father in 1888, Marian and her mother Alice moved to Geneva to live with Alice’s sister, Harriet.  By 1892 the women moved in with Marian’s uncle, John Barker Church IV at 554 South Main Street.  While Alice and Marian were relatively poor they also had many upper class connections due to Alice’s family and those connections would be very helpful to Marian later in life. As Marian had no independent income she faced the choice of finding a rich husband or finding a career which would allow her to support herself.  She chose the latter and in 1901 Alice and Marian moved to Boston so Marian could attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and study architectural landscaping.

It took a lot of determination and courage for any woman to pursue a career in the early 1900s.  As fellow student Martha Brooks Brown put it, “It was considered almost social suicide and distinctly matrimonial suicide, for a woman to enter any profession.”  The social norm of the time was for men to marry younger women and Marian was 25 when she entered MIT.

After graduating in 1904 Marian soon discovered that no architectural firm would hire her because she was a woman, so she started her own business in New York City in 1905.  With connections to some of the most influential families on the East Coast she started designing suburban gardens.  Some of her first projects were on Long Island and eventually her clientele included the Fricks, Vanderbilts, Huttons, and du Ponts.  By the 1920s she became one of the most sought after landscape designers in the eastern United States.

As her reputation spread Marian was able to hire an assistant and move to a larger office.  She was also able to put her ideas and principles into practice.  Her firm not only employed women whenever possible but provided them with apprenticeships, a learning opportunity that had been denied to Marian.   

Many of Marian’s ideas and theories are evident in the gardens of the du Pont estate at Winterthur.  Designed for her friends Harry and Ruth du Pont, it was the biggest commission of her career.  While she made attempts to find work in the Midwest the presence of several well-known firms in Chicago prevented her from making inroads there, however she had plenty of work to keep her busy on the East Coast.  The majority of her work was done in the twelve years between the end of World War I and the Great Depression.

Though the Great Depression reduced the number of commissions she received, Marian worked consistently until her death at age 80 in 1957. During her working lifetime she designed over 130 gardens including the Campus of the University of Delaware, the Caumsett Estate as well as Winterthur in Delaware and dozens of individual estate gardens. 

Marian Cruger Coffin

For more information about Marian read Money, Manure & Maintenance: Ingredients for Successful Gardens of Marian Coffin, Pioneer Landscape Architect 1876-1957 by Nancy Fleming.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Basket of a Tale

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Margaret Johnston's basket
When people donate objects to the museum, we always ask if they know anything about the history of the items.  Sometimes there is a family story about who made or owned a piece, and we take those stories seriously.  Once in a while, though, when we look into the story, we find that there may have been some misunderstanding as the tale was passed down.  One example of this is a basket given to us by the Hutchins family. 

According to Agnes Swan Hutchins a tan grass basket with dark deer silhouettes was acquired by her grandmother Margaret Alexander Johnston on Anticosti Island in 1822.  Margaret was traveling with her young children Elizabeth and James, her sister-in-law Agnes Johnston, and a woman named Margaret McMath who may have been a cousin.  They were coming to join Margaret Johnston’s husband John Johnston, who had come the previous year and bought a farm on the east side of Seneca Lake.  Anticosti Island is at the outlet of the St. Lawrence River into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it has caused over 400 shipwrecks.  

Anticosti Island is circled in green

In the spring of 1822 it caused a wreck for the Thompson’s Packet which was probably Margaret’s boat as she told the family that she had sailed on the brig Thompson.   Based on shipping records from Montreal, people boating in the gulf kept an eye peeled for trouble.  If a ship was aground, someone sailed up to Montreal and told the harbor master that there was a boat in trouble.  Ships were then sent to rescue the people and tow the boat into harbor.  The Thompson’s Packet was stuck at Anticosti for 16 days, and “received much damage, bout [sic] two leagues to the westward of Grand Bay.”  Meanwhile, John Johnston was frantic about his family.  When they did not show up in Geneva he tried to trace their journey backwards in hopes of locating them.  After a difficult journey on each side, the family was finally reunited in Montreal. 

Based on Agnes’s account native people were living on Anticosti in 1822, and her grandmother acquired a basket from them.  She believed that this was the basket in our collection. 

Last year I tried to learn more about Anticosti and its native inhabitants.  I discovered that although the Mi'kmaq and Innu people often hunted on Anticosti, neither of them had settlements there.  The shipwrecked passengers may have encountered native people, but I had to wonder how likely hunting parties would have been to have fancy baskets with them.

Innu baskets

When I began looking for of Mi’kmaq and Innu baskets online, I was a bit taken aback to find that Mi’kmaq baskets were usually ash splint, and unadorned, or birch bark with quill embroidery.  Innu baskets were apparently also of birch bark.  After contacting the First People’s Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the National Museum of the American Indian, I was referred to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley California. 

Mi’kmaq basket

The Hearst Museum’s basket specialist, Natasha Johnson, agreed with the National Museum of the American Indian that our basket looks northwestern, and she asked for pictures of its interior. Below is her response -  
Based on the weaving on the interior (tribes to the west and south had plain interiors) I'm pretty positive this basket is Shasta, Wintu, Achumawi (Pit River) or Atsugewi (Hat Creek) that style is common to all four.  It’s not an area I know super well, but I'd estimate the basket to be any time from 1880-1950, possibly made for sale.   . . .  All Northern California tribes used Bear Grass (white) and maidenhair fern stem (black) in their overlay designs.  The under wefts are probably conifer root of some sort and the warps are often hazel or willow shoots.  The basket is twined, mostly plain twined, with three strand twining on the base, again for increased strength. . . . .
 She also sent a link to a picture of one of their baskets that looks very similar.  

Shasta basket from the collection of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology

It’s hard to know, looking at the pictures, how our basket could be anything other than a Northern California specimen.  Though I was disappointed to find this out, I wonder if the Johnston/Swan/Hutchins families had more than one basket in their attic, and if the story became associated with the wrong one.   But it is still a beautiful piece, and it is better to know than not to know. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Rose Hill Turns 175!

Over the years several families have called Rose Hill home and one of them was the William Strong family.  In 1835 Strong purchased the Rose home and property.   After amassing a fortune as a wool merchant in New York City, Strong retired and moved his family to Geneva.    It was Strong who built the Greek Revival mansion people see and enjoy today.  To build the mansion, the Rose house was moved to the north and converted it into a carriage house (currently the Rose Hill Mansion Visitor Center and Gift Shop).  The original 1809 kitchen was kept in place and Strong built his mansion around it. 

Though we know that the mansion was built between 1837 and 1839, the earliest reference date for its completion is September 7, 1839.  Why September 7?    According to newspaper accounts that’s when President Martin Van Buren visited Rose Hill.  Below are two very different accounts of the Presidential visit.  

From the Courier
Saturday the 7th inst. was signalized by the “grand entre” of the President of the United States into our quiet little village; and as the old Federal Gazette has been discontinued, it may be expected that we should give some account of the pageant.

. . . Well – the day arrived – and the steamboat arrived, (with less than her usual number of passengers,) and Van Buren arrived, accompanied by a long string of carriages . . .

On reaching the Hotel, the Marshal requested the audience to give “three times three,” with which a part of the company complied, and raised a feeble cry, which died away at number seven, and the two remaining cheers were dispensed with. 

Mr. Van Buren then, with the federal office-holders “near his person,” mounted the piazza, the timbers of which being, like his sub-treasury scheme, somewhat rotten, gave way, and very disrespectfully landed the little group of “spoils men” safely upon the ground.  We understand the “Northern man with Southern principles,” was a little frightened, and that for a few minutes, heartshorn [sic] and cologne were in brisk demand.  . . . Mr. Sutherland made a long speech to Mr. Van Buren, and Mr. Van Buren delivered a short speech to Mr. Sutherland.   . . .

After shaking hands with some of the citizens, the President retired to a private house to partake of the hospitalities of a personal friend, leaving the “dear people,” some of whom . . . had come from fifteen to sixty miles to help do him honor, to go fasting home, or to take their dinners without him at the public houses.  Mr. Van Buren attended church on Sunday, and yesterday morning proceeded on his way to Auburn, where we understand the next act of the farce was to be performed

Martin Van Buren
An excerpt from the Geneva Gazette

“On Monday morning, in company with the Committee of Arrangements, and a number of citizens, [President Martin Van Buren] proceeded on his way to Waterloo. After visiting the splendid mansion of W.K. Strong, Esq., on the east side of Seneca Lake, he was received by the Committee from Waterloo with a great concourse of citizens from Seneca County and with them proceeded on to that place. We have thus briefly given an account of the President’s reception at Geneva, sensible that the description falls far short of reality…”  
In honor of the 175th anniversary of PresidentVan Buren’s visit we will host a birthday party for Rose Hill Mansion on Sunday, September 7, from 2-4 p.m. Our Education Coordinator, Alice Askins, will present a program about William Strong, at 2 p.m. on the back patio. After the program there will be a behind-the-scenes tour of the mansion and, of course, birthday cake will be served. The event is free and open to the public. 

On a side note, after building his beautiful home, Strong did not live there for very long.  Four years after its completion, his wife died and Strong moved his family back to New York City.

William Strong

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Herendeens and the Summer of 1914, Part II

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

Last month’s blog ended with Frank Herendeen’s entry from July 25, 1914, when Austria declared war. Hotel guests immediately began fleeing by auto and carriage. The Herendeens stayed put for almost a week.  On July 31 “came a dispatch that the entire Austrian army was to mobilize, and immediately great excitement prevailed in the hotel.” The family left the next day, along with about 200 other guests; they traveled through Cortina to Bozen, then took a train to Munich. Frank wrote:  “The whole country is full of moving troops and horses, etc….Train after train of soldiers and reserves passed.

Fanny, wearing a Tyrolean outfit, and Frank Herendeen, in a studio portrait taken in Geneva after their return

The family reached Munich on August 3 and found the city under martial law. On August 4 England declared war on Germany, sparking a backlash that would continue during the Herendeens’ time in the country. English names were removed from hotels, banks would not issue money on letters of credit from English banks, and Americans were advised to wear small US flags on their clothing to separate themselves from the English.

Nonetheless, Frank continued to write about daily affairs. He found a fine hotel and hired a teacher for Fannie. They spent their days sightseeing and shopping while thousands of Americans were fleeing the country. “We shall remain here in Munich for the present…we are comfortable and safe here.” The US Embassy was advising citizens not to rush to the Netherlands or Belgium unless they had passage to America, as those countries could not handle more people. In mid-August Frank purchased steamship tickets to sail home from Holland in mid-October. The family moved to Berlin on September 6 and remained there until it was time to go home.

Frank was an ardent supporter of Germany and was confident of their victory. “No soldier can surpass the German soldier & the people have a right to be proud of their Army. To put in the field within 10 days 8,000,000 trained soldiers is a very wonderful thing – no other nation could do it.”

A month before leaving, he wrote, “I would, in fact, personally, like to remain here till the War is over, it would be a wonderful sight to see the victorious Army march through their Capitol [Berlin].” After returning to the United States, he expressed nostalgia for Germany: the streets were cleaner, the food was cheaper, and the war news was accurate.

Annie Herendeen kept a diary of the trip as well, and wrote a long letter home to her mother recounting the events of July and August. She shared a different perspective from her husband. As they left Karersee to travel to Munich, troops were mobilizing and she wrote, “One could scarcely look without sympathetic tears at the partings of father and son, husband and wife, sister and brother. There were many affecting scenes and the little balconies along the line of march were filled with red-eyed, sad faced women. At Lobloch where all assembled to take the trains night was made hideous by shouting and singing men in the cafes and streets.

She also wrote of the Germans’ crackdown on suspected spies.  One story involved the Herring sisters who were friends of Emma Herendeen. “They are unusually large, stout girls and were arrested in the street last week and surrounded by an angry crowd and accused of being men – spies – in disguise. The officer was intensely rude and took them finally to some station and had them undress and minutely examined by a woman and then did not even apologize for his mistake. Needless to say they were badly frightened as well as very furious.” As bad as this was, they were fortunate; Annie went on to write that a chauffeur who was slow in stopping his car and giving his name “was shot dead on the spot!

The Herendeens arrived home in Geneva on November 8. As with any travelers, the first week was spent unpacking and visiting friends and family; in this case, they wanted to hear about the war.  “Everyone I meet is interested to hear about our experiences in Europe and seem surprised that we had no disagreeable experiences or trouble of any sort. Practically every person I have talked with here feels that Germany in the End will lose in the great struggle, and no one has any clear idea of the great strength in every way of Germany, and of her ability to continue the war a long time.”

Frank continued to write about the war over the next four years. I have not read Frank’s diaries through 1918 to see if his opinions changed as the United States entered the war. He was not alone in either supporting Germany or American neutrality; some people held to their views throughout the war. History is often reduced to simple terms of “good/bad” and “won/lost”, but it was always more complicated as it unfolded. We are fortunate to have primary sources in our collection that offer different perspectives on history.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Festival Time

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

Cruisin' Night 2006

It is that time of year again.  Festivals are everywhere.  If there is anyone who can’t find something to do on a weekend in the Finger Lakes they must have their eyes closed and their cell phone glued to their ear.  Just recently in the area surrounding Geneva there was a garlic festival, a sauerkraut festival and the eclectic Park Ave. festival in Rochester.  From the start of the summer until the unofficial end on Labor Day there will be music, art, food, beverage and craft fairs and festivals. 

As I write this Walnut Hill Farm Carriage Driving Competition is going on as well as Empire State Farm Days.  While neither is technically a fair or festival the atmosphere surrounding both events resonates that of a fair. 

Walnut Hill is a very elegant affair filled with fine food and beverages, highly polished carriages and equipment, and absolutely beautiful well trained horses, and ponies.  The drivers and grooms are immaculately dressed and one day spent there can send you back in time 150 years.  

Empire Farm days is more of a “car show” for new agricultural equipment.  People arrive in jeans or shorts with entire families in tow.  What it may lack in elegance it makes up for in interesting displays and free samples.  The food is plainer but no less tasty and one day there can catapult you into the future of agriculture 25 years from now!

Unity Festival 2002

What do these two disparate events have in common? People, food, animals, equipment, and skill development.  I have attended both of these wonderful “fairs” and had a wonderful time at each.  I have also, at various times in my life, attended The Clothesline Art Show, the Corn Hill Festival, the Park Avenue Festival (all in Rochester, NY); the Native American Dance and Music Festival at Ganondagan in Victor, NY; The Highland Games near Dundee, NY; The Hemlock “Little World’s” Fair, in Hemlock, NY; the Monroe County Fair, near Rochester, NY; The Wayland Potato Festival, and the New York State Fair to name a few.

Seneca Lake Whale Watch

I have paid $2 for a side show (definitely not worth it), eaten funnel cakes, cheese burgers, tacos, hot dogs, butterfly chips, sugar waffles, and innumerable fair specialty foods dedicated to the fair or festival’s theme such as potato ice cream and candy or bison burgers. I have watched milking contests where some people who participated barely knew the head of the cow from the “business end”.  I have had a sweater sleeve eaten by a large Brown Swiss cow.  I have stood next to a 17 hand high (5’ 8” at the horse’s withers/shoulder) draft horse with a 7 year old sitting on him braiding his mane. I have walked through a variety of suspicious smelling liquids at agriculture fairs (and a few at street fairs).  I once even asked a vendor to write an “excuse” for me when I purchased a pretty expensive handmade teddy bear at a juried art/craft show.  There are only two things I generally don’t like about fairs and festivals. The parking is usually expensive or very far away and porta-potties.  Both leave a lot to be desired but are better than nothing.

Unity Festival 2003

Geneva had fairs in the 1800s and still has its “fair” share of festivals today.  Many of the churches run carnivals and fairs in the summer and I have been to several excellent ones.  The city hosts a fabulously fun event called Crusin’ Night, and more than one cultural event like the Italian Festival at the Sons of Italy and the Latino Festival.  We have had musical events like Whale Watch and even the Mussel Man Triathlon, which takes on a festive air.  

The first year I came to work in Geneva I attended the Whale Watch.  What fun!  There was the usual assortment of vendors for foods and souvenirs.  The Historical Society had a booth and took publications to sell.  We brought games for the children to play and taught them activities like “Graces” where decorated hoops are thrown and caught with pointed dowels.  There was even a cardboard boat race! And all of this took place on the shore of Seneca Lake. 

One year I attended Cruisin’ Night and encountered my cousin who had brought his race car to the event.  He and two friends, who had also brought their racing cars, were parked on the northwest corner of Seneca and Exchange Streets  where the antique tractors were set up this year.  Periodically, each of them would start the engines on the racers, starting from the least powerful to the most powerful sounding.  Even after I went home that evening I could hear the revving of these powerful motors in the distance.  For me, this is part of the joy of Geneva.  When Crusin’ Night is happening, everyone knows it even if they don’t attend.  Some might find this a joyless intrusion on their space, but I think of it as proof that something vibrant, fun and positive is happening in our city.  Geneva is Alive!

I urge all of you to take some time this summer to discover some of the wonderful events that occur in the Finger Lakes.  Every lake, every city has different and exciting things to do.  You can visit a festival any place you want in New York State you only need to take the first step and explore. Wine, cheese, apples, grapes, tomatoes, garlic, peppermint, onions, music, arts and crafts and more are all waiting to be discovered in Geneva’s backyard.  Don’t let all this summer fun pass you by!

Cruisin' Night

Friday, August 8, 2014

Currency, Finance and the Civil War

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Banking in the early years of the American Republic was decentralized, inefficient and disorganized, leading to frequent panics and depressions. While attempts were made to resolve these problems, none were substantial or comprehensive enough to put the nation on a solid financial footing. As in many other areas of national development, it was the Civil War which prompted radical change in the country’s financial system.

To pay for the men and material needed to fight the war, the government needed to increase revenue. There are three ways to do this: increasing taxes, borrowing funds, or printing money. The U.S. Congress took action quickly, increasing the tariff (the main source of government income to that time) and passing the first federal income tax in August 1861. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase started the first war bond program in American history to provide loans to the federal government. He sold government bonds both to financiers and ordinary people. By the war’s end, he had sold $400 million worth of “five-twenties”—6 percent bonds that could be redeemed between five and twenty years after issuance—and $800 million worth of 7 percent bonds (“seven-thirties”).

Newspaper ad for 6% bonds

Newspaper ad for 5-20 bonds
Ads for the new bond programs appeared in the Geneva newspapers. The local agent was at the Bank of Geneva.

The most controversial action was the 1862 passage of the Legal Tender Act, which allowed the government to print paper money (greenbacks) to pay its bills. Up to this time, the federal government had minted gold and silver coins but did not issue currency. The central government had last issued paper money when the Continental Congress printed dollars during the Revolution, which had become worthless by the end of the war. Fears of inflation, as well as constitutional doubts about the right of the government to print currency, led many Americans to oppose the Legal Tender Act

Greenbacks issued in 1862 were the first U.S. currency issued as legal tender.

The paper money in circulation before the Civil War was issued by individual banks, usually regulated by the states. There was no nation-wide uniform currency and no centralized control of the money supply. Bank notes could be redeemed at an issuing bank for specie (gold or silver coins). Since banks issued more notes than the amount of gold they had in reserve, a bank could easily go bankrupt if too many people tried to redeem notes at the same time (see our previous blog post  "Banking in Early Geneva").

Bad news on the war front in late 1861 led people to hoard gold. Those who had bank notes exchanged them for gold coins. By early 1862, both private banks and the Treasury were running short of reserves and had stopped paying out gold in exchange for their notes. Though Secretary Chase was uncertain of the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act, he considered it an emergency measure, writing to Congress in February 1862, “Immediate action is of great importance. The Treasury is nearly empty.” Passed as a war measure, the action was viewed as temporary.

The legislation made greenbacks legal tender for all debts, except custom duties and interest on government bonds—these payments had to be made in specie to shore up the Union’s supply of gold reserves. To maintain these reserves, the new federal currency could not be exchanged for specie. Concern over these unprecedented acts on the part of the federal government actually led many Americans to clamor for higher taxes to pay for the war, rather than printing currency. “Resort must be had to taxes, direct or indirect, or both, to place the government upon a basis of credit which will enable it to command the required means [to fight the war].” Geneva Gazette, January 24, 1862

Secretary Chase cranks out greenbacks in this political cartoon criticizing the administration. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The change to currency laws enabled the Union to pay its expenses with money it printed. It stopped the run on reserves, but caused inflation. Though far less severe than in the Confederacy (80% compared to 9000%), complaints about the Union’s actions appeared in the press:

Rise in Prices.—Almost every article of domestic consumption has doubled in price within the past two years, and in some instances has trebled; and upon those who depend upon fixed wages, for the support of themselves and family, have fallen heavily. There is no probability, so far as human foresight can see, of any change for the better. Just so long as Government keeps printing greenbacks, in almost fabulous amounts, just so long will prices tend upward of everything that can be bought and sold. A greenback representing one dollar is now worth only about 68 cents.—Geneva Gazette, November 20, 1863

Metal was in short supply for minting coins. Both banks and the Treasury had to resort to printing fractional currency so merchants could make change.
The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864 consolidated and expanded on the changes to the financial system introduced in 1862. Based on New York’s Free Banking Law of 1838, these Acts had three primary purposes: to create a system of national banks under federal regulation, to create a uniform national currency, and to provide a market for government bonds to help finance the Union’s war expenses. The new National banks were required to purchase U.S. bonds equal to one-third of their capital, thus ensuring buyers for the bonds. They were to accept bank notes from other national banks at par or face value, and to circulate Treasury notes (greenbacks) in place of their own bank notes. A 10% tax on bank notes issued by other banks was added in 1865, effectively ending the use of state and private bank notes.

Two national banks were started in Geneva in the 1860s. First National Bank of Geneva was begun in 1863 by several men with Canandaigua banking connections. Three years later, Alexander Chew, Phineas Prouty, Corydon Wheat, Thomas Hillhouse and Thomas Raines bought out the bank and made Chew President. Shortly after, First National constructed a building on the southeast corner of Seneca and Exchange Streets for doing business.

First National Bank of Geneva stood on the south corner of Seneca and Exchange Streets.

The Bank of Geneva, which dated back to 1817, was re-chartered as Geneva National Bank in 1865. The director was Samuel Verplanck, a former cashier at the Bank of Geneva. The bank was located in the newly constructed Bank of Geneva building at the northeast corner of Seneca and Exchange Streets, directly across from its rival.

Geneva National Bank was across Seneca Street from First National, on the north corner at Exchange Street.

The changes brought about by the crisis of war were the beginnings of the banking system we have today. Questions about monetary policy and economic control of the growing and urbanizing nation would dominate post-Civil War politics, particularly in years when the system failed to cope well with economic upheavals. The next major change to the financial system would emerge at the turn of the 20th century with the Aldrich Act of 1907 and the construction of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.

Articles on banking and currency at Wikipedia, including:

Grossman, Richard S. “US Banking History, Civil War to World War II.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. Retrieved August 6, 2014.

Jaremski, Matthew. “State Banks and the National Banking Acts: A Tale of Creative Destruction.” November 2010. Retrieved August 6, 2014.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.