Aside from the notorious "Continentals" issued to help finance the American Revolution, paper currency did not come into general use until the Civil War. An act of Congress in 1862 authorized the Treasury Department to come up with a method for destroying old paper notes that were no longer fit for circulation. At first they were burned in a special furnace located on the "White Lot" behind the White House, but this method proved to be problematic. It was hard to thoroughly incinerate bundles of notes, and undestroyed fragments could escape through the chimney. Enterprising individuals would scour the White Lot for fragments of bills that they then submitted to the Treasury Department for replacement, claiming the notes had been accidentally burned. Treasury officials soon caught on to the scam, however, and looked for a better way to destroy old bills.
|Burning old money in the White Lot furnace (source: Mary Clemmer, Ten Years in Washington or Inside Life and Scenes in Our National Capital as a Woman Sees Them, published in 1882).|
The Washington Post reported in 1903 that over 30 "remembrance shops," "souvenir stores," and "memento stands" graced the Avenue selling all sorts of baubles like these. The advent of such tourist traps was seen as a welcome relief for Washington's famous public buildings and monuments. In earlier days, before the business got started, visitors would regularly resort to vandalism to create their own D.C. souvenirs, chipping off bits of the Washington Monument, breaking off a fragment of the White House wall, or even whittling a shaving off the leg of a chair in the Capitol. The incidence of such souvenir-driven vandalism reportedly declined significantly after ready-made souvenirs came on the market.
Apparently there is some unwritten law that requires all cheap souvenirs to be made in a single foreign country. Lately it has been China, before that Taiwan, and several decades ago Japan. In 1903 it was Germany, credited by the Post with inventing the cheap souvenir industry. After flooding European cities with their wares, the Germans "then invaded the American market, and to-day every place of interest, from the Capital to Pike's Peak, and from Niagara Falls to St. Augustine, Fla., is supplied with trinkets made in Germany." And why couldn't American manufacturers compete with the Germans? The usual reason: the cost of labor. "Here is a cup and saucer of excellent china, with a picture of Cabin John Bridge on one side and Arlington on the other. It sells for 75 cents. If made in this country, $2.25 is the lowest price at which it could be sold."
|Dramatic nighttime views of major buildings and monuments were popular in the early 1900s. This hand-colored postcard was printed, naturally, in Germany (author's collection).|
|Postcard view of the new Treasury macerator, circa 1915 (author's collection). Visit Shorpy for another view of a macerating committee.|
|Manufacturing uniform slabs of pulp from macerated currency at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1914. The pulp was sold to make cardboard and other low-grade paper products (Source: Library of Congress).|