Have you ever wondered why the United States has that law prohibiting the use of a living person’s face on currency or stamps? Well, mostly it happened because of one man who just couldn’t resist the sight of his own face.
In 1866, the United States was in the middle of a coin shortage. Several things had been tried to alleviate the shortfall, but none were particularly successful. At one point, postage stamps had been used as money. The Treasury also began issuing fractional currency to prevent citizens from hoarding silver coins. And this is where things got interesting.
Spencer M. Clark, the Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was not a popular man. In 1864, he came under investigation from the House of Representatives when Representative James R. Brooks denounced the Treasury as “a house for orgies and bacchanals.” Charges of harassment, hiring women for their appearance, and attempting to pay female employees for “trysts” were all laid against Clark, though the subsequent investigating body decided the claims were part of a “conspiracy” and were dropped. Congress, however, was not eager for more scandal from Clark.
When the third run of a five-cent note was approved, Congress asked that it feature the portrait of William Clark, the famed explorer. But apparently, the official documentation that was sent to the Treasury only mentioned that “Clark” should appear on the note. Spencer Clark saw his opportunity and ran with it, giving the order that his own face appear on the note. (There is another version of the story, in which Clark put the portrait of the treasurer of the United States on the 50-cent note, without bothering to ask him first. Fortunately, the Treasurer was pleased, and asked whose portrait was to be on the 5-cent note. The story goes that Clark said, “How would the likeness of Clark do?” The Treasurer, thinking the Clark in question was Freeman Clarke, Comptroller of the Currency, agreed.)
Congress was not amused.
Russell Thayer, a congressman from Pennsylvania, amended an appropriations bill to include the line, “hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.” When speaking before Congress to advocate for amendment, Thayer said: “I hold in my hand a five-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes … I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…It is derogatory to the dignity and the self-respect of the nation. I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”
Clark kept his head, fortunately, but very nearly lost his job, only keeping it because of the personal intervention of the Treasury Secretary. Congress passed the Thayer Amendment on April 7, 1866, and followed it up with a law in May of the same year prohibiting bills for fractional currency less than 10 cents, which finally resulted in the cessation of printing for Clark’s notes.