Sag Harbor’s Vintage Currency

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By Julie Penny

I had to go away to find out something about home. Not that I went that far. It was serendipity that brought me to the Rocky Point Jewelers on a bitter cold day last year, and serendipity that I ended up speaking with the store’s owners, Anthony Bongiovanni junior and senior. It was not because of the errand that brought me to the shop that I stumbled upon a nugget from Sag Harbor’s past, but something I had noticed hanging on the shop’s wall that piqued my curiosity—I can’t now even remember what it was that had drawn my attention. But, it ultimately led me into an animated conversation with the store’s owners who are history buffs. It also led to Mr. Bongiovanni, Jr. bringing out a binder book of “scrip” from his vault that he’d been collecting from different places in Suffolk, including Sag Harbor. Scrip is any substitute for legal tender and has been used as a form of credit in the course of our 233 year history whenever we’ve been whiplashed by troubled economic times. Resorting to creating a local currency “scrip” when banks closed temporarily and when there was a shortage of coins was a way to keep the economy afloat and for trade to continue during hard times, as in periods of depression or war. In this case, the “scrip” were pretty certificates of various designs that included the name of our village: “Sag Harbor.”

Mr. Bongiovanni showed me some that he’d collected. One was of a $3 note that was issued by the Suffolk County Bank in 1844 on the heels of a long depression that began with the panic of 1837. The Suffolk County Bank had a relatively short history in our town. It opened its doors in 1844 and closed in 1867. It’s listed in the 1840’s business directory with John Hand’s name next to it—whether as bank manager or as its owner, I’m not certain. I don’t know where it was located. A part of its tenure overlapped for seven years with that of the Sag Harbor Savings Bank located on the northwest corner of Main and Spring Street which opened in 1860 and merged with the Apple Bank 120 years later in 1989. It’d be interesting to know if they, too, have some old certificates moldering away in their basement; although, the only extant copies of these notes seem to be have been issued by the Suffolk County Bank in different denominations. The ones I saw were in 3, 5, 10, 25, 50-cent and $3.00 banknotes.

Between 1844 and 1862 our own local merchants issued their own scrip through the Suffolk County Bank. Among them is a 10-cent note that Mr. Bongiovanni says was known as “private scrip.” It was “issued by J.E. Smith through the Suffolk County Bank.” Smith was a shipbuilder involved in the whaling trade. To Mr. Bongiovanni’s knowledge, this “…note produced in the 1840’s represents the earliest of any note issued by the Suffolk County Bank…It is unlisted in reference books and is presumably the only known specimen.”

It turns out that in 2003, our own local historian, Dorothy Zaykowski, of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, was able to sketch out the backgrounds on the other issuers of our hardscrabble currency when Mr. Bongiovanni had inquired about them. He had a 5-cent note for “W & G.H. Cooper – Dealers in Dry Goods, Groceries, Paints, Oils” that was issued in 1862, during the Civil War. In fact, the Historic Society / Museum of which Dorothy is the administrator is headquartered in the old “Annie Cooper Boyd” home on Main Street right next to the old Cooper homestead. Annie was the daughter of William Cooper who owned the store and who was also involved in the whaling industry. These homes are located several doors south of the Main and Spring street intersection.

The last of these certificates that I’ll mention is a 25-cent note issued on November 15, 1862 and that actually circulated as currency. The issuer was William Buck who was one of Sag Harbor’s early pharmacists. In her letter to Mr. Bongiovanni, Dorothy says: “His first store which opened in 1844, was on the east side of Main Street on the ground floor of the Mansion House Hotel. In 1859 he moved into a new brick building on the west side of Main Street, a building that has housed drug stores continuously through the years and is now the Sag Harbor Pharmacy. William Buck was in the drug business until 1873.”

The way things are going, who knows, maybe one day we’ll be lining up at our local merchants, “scrip” in hand. The necessity of a community based credit system has been a recurrent theme in our history, and maybe one that we’ll need to look at again in imaginative ways. Certainly, community banks, having been more prudent in their lending, are in a better position than the behemoths that are taking us down. 

 

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