Issued in the 1850s by the Howard Banking Company, this five dollar bill featuring Santa Claus actually functioned as legal tender. Unlike today, when the federal government issues all of the paper currency for the United States, private banks held that responsibility from the close of the American Revolution until 1861. Now called "obsolete bank notes," the bills varied in design from bank to bank and were often quite colorful. The issuing institutions typically used stock images provided by the companies that engraved and printed the currency.
A number of banks made use of Santa Claus illustrations in the 1850s—the most logical being the St. Nicholas Bank of New York City. The Santa who graces this Howard Banking Company bill is descended from Sinter Klaas, a traditional figure brought by Dutch settlers to New York in the 17th century. He went through several significant metamorphoses in America, including features added by Washington Irving in his Knickerbocker History (1809) and the 1822 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("Twas the Night before Christmas"), attributed to Clement Moore.
The Massachusetts Historical Society keeps a significant collection of numismatics—coins, medals, and paper currency—which includes a large section of obsolete notes from Massachusetts banks and merchants. To learn more about this collection, visit our Numismatics and Historical Artifacts page. To use this collection, please make an appointment with Anne Bentley, Curator of Art, at 617-646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.