APMEX Showcase: 1923 $5 Silver Certificate Lincoln Porthole

1923 $5 Silver Certificate Lincoln Porthole

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On April 12, 1861, shots were fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, S.C., marking the beginning of the Civil War. As war swept across the nation, both sides raised armies and spent millions of dollars equipping, transporting and feeding those men. The Silver and Gold coins in circulation at that time were hoarded since no one knew what the outcome of the war would be. Both sides began printing their own paper currency as a means of paying their soldiers, their vendors and their war debts.

The Union printed $10 “demand notes” in 1861, called such because the bearer could demand to exchange the notes for $10 in Gold coins, but only at certain U.S. Treasury facilities. These first demand notes depicted President Abraham Lincoln, which was highly unusual since there was a custom that forbade any living person from appearing on our coinage. But the nation was at war and the Union fervently supported their president, so his likeness was printed.

The appearance and usage of these demand notes familiarized the public to using paper currency, although some merchants still wanted a hard asset as payment. Eventually, everyone began to accept these notes as currency. The Confederacy never struck any meaningful numbers of actual coins so they relied heavily upon their paper currency. These demand notes were replaced one year later by Legal Tender notes, which matched the demand note design, except the words “On Demand” were omitted. Lincoln also appeared on Interest Bearing notes and Compound Interest Treasury notes, both of which were routinely exchanged for their interest. 

As the Civil War drew to a close, the assassination of President Lincoln rocked the nation, especially in the North. The nation looked for ways to honor the martyred president. His likeness appeared on an 1869 $100 Legal Tender U.S. Note, but due to the high denomination, most Americans never saw these notes.

The Civil War greatly reduced the amount of Silver and Gold coins used for commerce but Treasury Department officials wanted to use the Lincoln's likeness on yet another piece of currency – this time the denomination would not limit who saw the bill.

Between 1863 and 1876, the government issued “Fractional” currency to relieve the coin shortage, issued in denominations from 3 cents to 50 cents. This allowed merchants to make change for their customers and also allowed the public to purchase low-cost items such as postage stamps. In 1875, the Treasury printed a 50 Cent Fractional Currency note bearing the likeness of President Lincoln.

Lincoln’s portrait did not grace any additional currency until 1899 when a small portrait of Lincoln (and one of Ulysses S. Grant) adorned the 1899 Silver Certificate, also known as the “Black Eagle” note due to the central vignette dominated by a large black bald eagle. This is one of the most popular notes in U.S. currency collecting.


In 1923 both a new $1 and $5 Silver Certificate were engraved and ready for distribution. The $1 note bore a likeness of George Washington and the $5 note depicted Abraham Lincoln, two outstanding choices to adorn U.S. currency. But while the $1 note received a great reception, the same cannot be said for the $5 note. The American public was actually horrified by it!

Lincoln was depicted in the central vignette of the note in a circular frame, which included the words “United States of America” and his name. This portrait was based on the well-known Matthew Brady photograph of Lincoln taken in February 1864. None of this seems atypical to U.S. currency, but to many in the public, it appeared Lincoln was “sitting at the end of a gun barrel.” Of course, this was particularly inappropriate for the assassinated president. Many in the public were outraged and demanded the note be recalled.

After several months, the controversy vanished and the notes were accepted as originally designed. In fact, the collecting public nicknamed the note the “Lincoln Porthole” as the frame around him resembles a ship’s viewing porthole.

Lincoln Porthole note

The Lincoln Porthole note remains one of the most collectible and most desirable of all large size notes. There are estimates of just 4,000 to 6,000 of these notes survive today. Paper Money Guaranty (PMG), one of the two major independent paper money grading services, has certified only 1,121 Lincoln Porthole notes in all grades. If PCGS Currency, the other major independent paper money grading service, has certified a similar number, those estimates may well be accurate.

Given its unusual appearance and somewhat tumultuous history, the Lincoln Porthole note is very popular and would be a wonderful addition to any U.S. Currency – or Presidential – collection.

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