My great-grandfather Oscar Harry Merz worked at Fidelity Union & Trust in Newark, New Jersey. One day he brought home a relic that had been hanging on the wall at the bank.

The so-called fractional currency shield is a fascinating artifact of American history, a framed portrait showing notes printed between 1862 and 1876 with denominations of less than a dollar.

The money was introduced after the outbreak of the Civil War created a shortage of coins as gold and silver were hoarded. An initial solution was to issue postage stamps as a form of currency. However, they proved too easy to counterfeit.

In 1863, the government created a new fractional currency that was more colorful, with printing on the backside and a number of other measures aimed at limiting counterfeits, such as
experimental paper, silk fibers, and watermarks.

Fractional notes circulated until 1876, when Congress authorized minting fractional silver coins.

The government also sold to banks for $4.50 a fractional currency shield with samples of 39 notes — printed on just one side — to help detect fakes.

Ironically, many of the fractional shields were printed using paper intended to make Confederate money. The paper – made from seaweed pulp and watermarked CSA (Confederate States of America) – was produced in Great Britain and seized from a Confederate blockade runner.

My great-grandfather’s shield was originally given to my grandfather who hung it on the wall of the “radio room” on the second floor of their house in Elberon, N.J. From there it passed down to my father. We used it to decorate the basement of the house where I grew up.

I remember my dad explaining that the banks used these shields to detect fake bills.

I hadn’t realized until recently that they were connected to the Civil War and the fractional notes that were created as a result of the scarcity of coins.

Fractional notes are a footnote to history. There arose a historical need and they were adopted and then later discarded. They came and went.

And yet, it’s one of those great reminders that the past conceals so much nuance. So many alleyways. Forgotten details today that were once commonplace.

It makes me question my own memory and perception.

I grew up with the shield hanging on the wall, but never thought much about it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come increasingly to realize that the things I thought I knew, the facts and memories that I thought were settled, were, in many cases, not settled at all.

They were imperfect perceptions from a moment in time, just part of a story.

There was always more to learn and a deeper context to understand.

(Part of a series of life lessons based on conversations with my parents.)