October Artifacts of the Month: Kay Kyser’s Costume and Mandolin

On October 5, the city of Rocky Mount installed an historical marker honoring James Kern “Kay” Kyser (1905-1985).  Kyser was a native of Rocky Mount and a 1928 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.  While at UNC, Kyser majored in commerce and was active in numerous extracurricular activities, including acting as head cheerleader for the Tar Heels and leading a band. Kay Kyser

Kyser became a bandleader when Hal Kemp, another UNC student, turned his popular band over to Kyser when he left the university to further his career. When Kyser later turned professional in the 1930s, he and his band became internationally famous.

Wilson Special Collections Library holds Kyser’s papers and several objects that belonged to him. Gallery staff worked with a researcher to select items for use in exhibits marking the historical marker celebration.  Such sessions are always an opportunity for us to learn more about our holdings.  Not only do we review the information we have about the items, we usually learn something from discussions with the visitor.  No exception this time.

Perhaps the most interesting of the holdings is a graduation cap, hood, and gown worn by Kyser in his role as the “Ol’ Perfessor of Swing.”  Kyser developed an act combining a quiz with music called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge.

Another interesting artifact in this collection is an old Italian mandolin.  We don’t know its connection to Kyser.  The instrument was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and possibly Kyser was a member of one of many “mandolin orchestras” that formed then.  This mandolin—erroneously described as a lute in our information system and now corrected—is of the bowlback or “potato bug” variety.  The current form was developed largely by the Gibson Guitar Corp., and this type was made famous by bluegrass musicians such as Bill Monroe.mandolin

A few Kyser-related items from our collection are currently on view in Rocky Mount at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences and Braswell Memorial Library. Other Kyser-related artifacts are available upon request in the North Carolina Collection Gallery.

April Artifacts of the Month: What is a token?

A token is usually thought of as a coin-like object used as money.  Tokens are not used much today but were common in the past when coins were in short supply.  But in thinking about tokens in the North Carolina Collection, I began to realize that such a simple definition falls short.  Let’s look at some of the NCC tokens.

Phenix Mills tokenPhenix Mills token

The trade token is perhaps the most common variety of token.  The token above was issued by the Phenix Mills Store in Kings Mountain, N.C., most likely in the early 1900s.  Denominated simply as “10,” it is about the size of a dime, made of base metal, and was good for merchandise.  It likely would have been given to company employees in exchange for work or as small change from a purchase in the company store.  It was issued by the company, and its purpose was to keep wealth in the company store.

Charlotte transit tokenCharlotte transit token reverse

About the size of a quarter and made of two different metals, the Charlotte Transit token from 2000 is denominated $1 and is good for the trolley or for street parking.  While it served as a transportation trade token, its attractive design both commemorates and promotes Charlotte Transit.

Civil War tokenCivil War token

The cent-size 1863 copper token is an example of a Civil War patriotic token issued in the North.  It might have circulated as a cent, since coins were very scarce during the Civil War because of hoarding.  The token also functioned as propaganda and perhaps also as a morale booster.

cotton bale tokencotton bale token

Another type of token is from the Wilmington Champion Compress & Warehouse Company. This token is made of aluminum and probably dates to the early 1900s.  These were issued to workers who loaded bales of cotton.  The quantity of tokens possessed by a worker documented the amount of work he had done, one token for each bale carried.  The tokens could be redeemed for money or perhaps goods in a company store.  While these tokens served as a limited kind of money, their use also constituted a simple work accounting system.

There is no comprehensive reference for this aspect of Tar Heel numismatics.  At least one researcher is working on one, and it will surely tell us a great deal more about this surprisingly complex topic.

Carolina Elephant Token

Carolina Elephant Token

The Carolina Elephant token is the earliest known numismatic artifact that refers to the Carolinas.  It is dated 1694, before the 1712 separation of the Province of Carolina into North and South Carolina colonies.  The origin and purpose of the token remain enigmatic despite extensive research that includes a seminal article written by Neil Fulghum, founding Keeper of the North Carolina Collection Gallery.

The Lords Proprietors were ruling landlords of the Province until their descendants sold their interests back to the Crown in 1729.  The Proprietors’ early attempts to populate the Province met with little success, although there were incentives to migrate.

The token takes its name from its full-body image of an elephant on the obverse.  The reverse has the lettering: “GOD : / PRESERVE : / CAROLINA : AND / THE : LORDS : / PROPRIETORS . / 1694.”  The token is copper, 28 mm in diameter, and was probably struck at London’s Tower Mint.  The piece is about the same size and weight as the abundant half-penny tokens that circulated in late seventeenth century London, and this might be the source of its description as a “token.”  A token is a money substitute usually issued by merchants at times when government-produced coins were in short supply.  There is no evidence that it ever circulated in the Province of Carolina or that it was made for that purpose.

Fulghum’s article speculates that the token may have circulated in the Royal Exchange in London and at the nearby Carolina Coffee-House on Birchin Lane.  It is known that the Proprietors and their agents frequented these locations and gave weekly presentations about their colony at the coffeehouse.  The Carolina Elephant token might have been used as a promotional reminder to potential settlers of Carolina.  Holders of Carolina tokens might have been able to redeem the pieces for some offering or premium at the Birchin Lane establishment or at an affiliated company store.

The North Carolina Collection holds an electrotype copy likely produced in the nineteenth century and several modern souvenir copies.  Genuine Carolina Elephant tokens are quite rare, and this Artifact of the Month is an important addition to the NCC’s early North Carolina numismatic collection.

Artifact of the Month: Nurse Cape

Did you know that the design of the nurse’s uniform evolved from the nun’s habit? At one time the convent was a common place for the sick to receive care, and the nuns did the nursing.

The cape was a standard part of the nurse’s apparel, a practice that endured into the 1980s. Our recently donated cape was worn by Nancy Hege Paar, a member of the UNC School of Nursing’s fifth class of Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates in 1959. Like many such capes, it is gray and mid-length. It appears to be made of wool, including the lining. The lining is a blue-gray, perhaps the closest match to Carolina Blue available from the Snowhite Garment Sales Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The initials “U. N. C.” on the collar further brand the cape.

Photo of Nancy Hege from 1959 Yackety Yack
Nancy Hege, 1959 Yackety Yack

The nurse’s cap was originally employed to keep a nurse’s hair neatly in place and to present a modest and orderly appearance. In the latter part of the 19th century, the form of the cap evolved to signify a nurse’s school. The cap became a symbol of the profession, often shrinking to be a token rather than a functional piece of clothing.

Today, both cape and cap are less common components of a nurse’s apparel. Scrubs have replaced them, providing a unisex uniform for both women and the increasing number of men in the profession.

Photo of UNC Nursing students, 1959
UNC School of Nursing students, 1959. From the UNC Photographic Laboratory Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

Artifact of the Month: A fraudulent North Carolina note

Early North Carolinians experienced many problems and frustrations with their money, and not just from having too little of it. One problem was that some of the money in circulation was fraudulent. We use this term rather than counterfeit because the problem went beyond counterfeiting — producing copies of genuine notes.

The North Carolina Collection Gallery recently acquired a “raised” note from the 1778 series of paper money. A genuine note is said to be raised when it has been altered to appear to be of higher denomination than it is.

The note below, shown front and back, at first glance appears to be worth four dollars. But reading the small print on the front — the main body of text or the vertical printing to the left — reveals that the note is worth one-fourth dollar. That’s a big difference.

front of fraudulent note
Front of fraudulent note
Back of fraudulent note
Back of fraudulent note

Compare the genuine but raised note to an unaltered example, below, also in our collection.

Unaltered note on the left; fraudulent note on the right.
Front of unaltered note on the left; fraudulent note on the right. Click for larger image.
Unaltered note on left; fraudulent note on right.
Back of unaltered note on the left; fraudulent note on the right. Click for larger image.

The raised note is a crude job, akin to a bad Photoshop job today.

Did it pass? Maybe.

Much paper money in circulation at the time was heavily worn, significantly more so than the relatively pristine unaltered 1778 specimen shown here. The holes and other defects produced by the raising might not alarm a person used to handling rags that had to serve well into frail old age.

Secondly, people may not have bothered to read the small print, especially if they had seen this type of note before.

Third, unusual (by present standards) denominations — such as four dollars — were more common before the Civil War, and would not have raised suspicions. And there was a genuine four-dollar note in the 1778 series, although it had a motto different from that of the quarter-dollar note.

The simple printing technology of the day, devoid of anti-counterfeiting measures, certainly did little to discourage crooks. Printing technology improved, but so did the skills of the charlatans. Raising genuine notes persisted well into the 19th century as a minor form of easy money making. Today, note raising is a seldom-encountered form of fraud. Modern crooks seem to do just fine with plain counterfeiting.

Artifact of the Month: 1776 note issued by the Fourth Provincial Congress

A recent addition to the North Carolina Collection Gallery’s numismatic collection tells a lesser-known story related to American independence. That $7.50 note is our January Artifact of the Month.


North Carolinians asserted their independence from British rule at the Fourth Provincial Congress in a session convened at Halifax starting April 4, 1776. The first North Carolina battle of the war had occurred that February at Moore’s Creek Bridge, where North Carolina troops led by Richard Caswell defeated a Loyalist force.

Independence was on the minds of the legislators, who called for a declaration of independence and the right to create a constitution. The Halifax Resolves passed unanimously on April 12. This action influenced other colonies to adopt similar resolutions, and together these actions led to the Declaration of Independence. (If the April 12 date is ringing distant bells, it’s because you’ve seen it on the current North Carolina state flag.)

That same session of the Provincial Congress led to a lesser-known assertion of independence. North Carolina, along with the other colonies, had long issued paper money. Massachusetts was the first colony to do so in 1690. North Carolina followed in 1712, the first of twenty-five 18th-century issues, the last in 1785. The 1776 session of the Provincial Congress authorized perhaps the most interesting of all the issues.

That issue is significant for several reasons. A total of seventeen different denominations were authorized, from 1/16 dollar through twenty dollars. (Aside: Bonus points to any Miscellany reader who can tell us in the comments why 1/16 of a dollar was used as a denomination.)

The denominations were issued in 56 different varieties with some denominations having as many as eight designs. The legislation specified neither the number of varieties nor the designs themselves, and it is unknown how these decisions were made.

Each note design displays a vignette, or illustration, usually of an animal, sometimes a plant. One even shows a cupid. But one design, the sole example of the 7 ½ dollar denomination, displays an unfurled flag.

Close-up of the flag vignette on the note.
Close-up of the flag vignette on the note.

Adopted by the Continental Congress in 1775, the Grand Union flag is usually considered the first American flag. It is also known as the Continental Colours, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign. The flag displays the familiar thirteen stripes but the canton features the British Union Jack flag. In 1777, thirteen stars replaced the Union Jack, and the Grand Union became our historic first flag.

The Grand Union flag.
The Grand Union flag.

First Lieutenant John Paul Jones hoisted the Grand Union flag over the USS Alfred in February 1776. This was the first appearance of an American flag on a naval ship. It is believed that the same flag was raised by George Washington on New Year’s Day, 1776, at Prospect Hill, now part of Somerville, Massachusetts. Today, you might see the Grand Union flying over the Capitol in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Oil painting by W. Nowland Van Powell, depicting  the Grand Union flag flying on the USS Alfred.  Original in the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NH_85212-KN.jpg
Oil painting by W. Nowland Van Powell, depicting the Grand Union flag flying on the USS Alfred. Original in the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NH_85212-KN.jpg

“The Story of the American Flag” in the October 1917 issue of National Geographic claims that the image on the North Carolina note is the “earliest perfect representation of the Grand Union ensign.”

Many examples of the note have survived, probably because of its odd denomination and the flag illustration. We were excited to add one of these proud patriotic notes to our numismatic collection. For North Carolina collectors, the vignette of the flag gives it special historical meaning and a bold statement of early patriotism.

Artifact of the Month: Paper money from a North Carolina sutler

Our October Artifact of the Month, a 50-cent note, was issued by a merchant in an uncommon and now obsolete profession. The note is a rare survivor of private North Carolina paper money issued because of the Civil War.

sutler note

I’ll bet many of you join me in what until recently was my ignorance of the meaning of the word sutler. The term is unfamiliar these days because sutlers are no longer needed. During the Civil War (and other wars before it), the sutler was a civilian merchant who travelled with armies and sold goods to the soldiers.

Why did sutlers exist? In our nation’s early years, federal, state, and local governments provided only limited support to institutions we now consider to be publicly-funded services. Soldiers in the military, for example, did not receive the same level of resources they do today. A soldier was expected to provide some of his own necessities and other goods to make life more livable.

A section about sutlers appears in the Confederate Army Regulations of 1863. The regulations state that “Every military post may have one Sutler, to be appointed by the Secretary of War on the recommendation of the Council of Administration, approved by the commanding officer.” Once appointed the sutler could move his wagon or tent or establish a more permanent structure near or on the grounds of an army post.

The sutler often had a monopoly on many non-military goods, including food, clothing, and stationery. As a result, prices were often unfairly inflated. And the quality of the goods, especially the food, was often very low.

Sutlers developed a less-than-respectable reputation, and were regarded as, at best, a necessary evil. Seen from another perspective, though, they operated a high-risk business, a target for local thieves and enemy army raiders.

Sutlers were important to both sides during the American Civil War. After the war ended, though, the need for sutlers diminished as the government increased the quantity and quality of its services to soldiers. The post exchange evolved to be a great benefit to the soldier, providing quality goods at desirable prices. The memory of the sutler is largely kept alive by modern self-described sutlers, merchants serving Civil War buffs with facsimile period military merchandise.

Most surviving documentation of Civil War sutlers pertains to those of the Union Army. A photo from the Library of Congress (source) shows a Union sutler, A. Foulke, and his tent at Brandy Station, Virginia, headquarters of 1st Brigade, Horse Artillery, in the winter of 1863-64.

sutler tent

Sutler money

Lack of circulating money was a big problem during the Civil War. Coins were scarce, leading to private substitutes. Like many other merchants, sutlers often made small change with their own paper money or tokens. Numismatists have studied and cataloged sutler money, and most surviving Civil War examples are from Northern sutlers. Southern examples are quite rare. The North Carolina Collection recently acquired this piece of paper money from a North Carolina sutler.


The 50-cent note is signed by W. Shelburn, indistinct here, but clearer on some of the other examples. He served the Fourth Brigade, N. C. T (North Carolina Troops). The statement of obligation declares that the note will be received for goods (from the sutler) or in “current funds,” which means any other scrip that the sutler might possess.

An unusual feature is the quite specific June 1863 printed date. One wonders if Shelburn had printed scrip with other dates.


Notes like this one tell an important story about the conduct of the Civil War – how militaries operated, how goods were exchanged, the life of soldiers on the front.

Can you tell us more?

The identity of W. Shelburn remains a mystery to us. We know of a William Shelburn, a North Carolina photographer active from about 1856 to 1907. It’s possible that he provided sutler services during the Civil War. But Shelburn is a relatively common name.

If you have any suggestions for identifying Shelburn, or other information about North Carolina sutlers, please leave a comment!

Artifact of the Month: Handwritten paper money of early North Carolina

In colonial North Carolina, paper money didn’t have the strong institutional backing it does today, and it was remarkably easy to counterfeit. Our July Artifact of the Month is a paper note from 1729 with a value of forty shillings… But was it real?

handwritten note
Our July Artifact of the Month: a 1729 handwritten paper note.

The preferred money of the time was coins of silver, gold, and copper. But Great Britain’s mercantilist colonial policy kept the flow of coins to the home country, and the colonies’ supply was always inadequate. To fill the need, all of Great Britain’s American colonies issued their own paper money. These notes were usually issued with little more than faith in the government as backing.

In 1690, Massachusetts became the first colony to issue its own paper money. North Carolina first issued paper money “bills of credit” in 1712 to finance a war against the Tuscarora Indians.

Unlike any other colony, North Carolina’s first four issues of paper money were produced without benefit of the printing press — they were all handwritten. The issues of 1712-13 and 1715 have no known surviving examples, but a few examples of the 1722 and 1729 issues are known. Our Artifact of the Month is an example of the last handwritten issue.

The note states “This Bill of Forty Shillings Shall be Current in North Carolina According to an Act of Assembly Made Nov 27, 1729.”

handwritten note detail

The note is serial number 730 and has a paper seal. It bears the signatures of John Lovick, William Downing, Cullen Pollock, Edward Moseley, and Thomas Swann. The back, originally blank, displays a couple of endorsements of bearers as the note circulated, a common practice with early North Carolina bills.

Back of note
Back of note

Handwritten paper money was highly susceptible to counterfeiting. The squiggly lines at top of this note were a simple means of counterfeit detection. If a note was brought to the proper governmental authority, it could be compared to the paper stubs with the top half of the squiggle with the same serial number.

Experts believe that most surviving examples of handwritten North Carolina paper money are counterfeits made by colonists (numismatists call these “contemporary counterfeits”). Some examples of these have been preserved in early court records of the prosecution of counterfeiters.

But what about our note? Is it a counterfeit? It was apparently condemned as counterfeit at the time, witnessed by the word “Counterfeit” penned at top.


One way to investigate would be to compare the signatures on the note with known-genuine signatures that are likely in the North Carolina State Archives. All five signers were prominent in local government and business, and it is likely that many of their documents have survived. As far as we know, no one has yet conducted this test, so we may attempt it ourselves.

Whether genuine or an early counterfeit, this is one of few survivors that attest to the severe money problems of early North Carolinians.

Those interested in learning more are referred to the excellent Money and Monetary Problems in Early North Carolina by Alan D. Watson, a 1980 publication of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History.

Artifact of the Month: “The Elvis Note”

Everyone knows that Elvis Presley had an immense influence on popular music and culture from the mid-twentieth century to the present. But who knew that he had a presence in the first part of the nineteenth century?

Evidence of his early life is found in an image on an 1837 bank note from Philadelphia’s Manual Labor Bank.

bank note
Click on the image for a larger version

Private paper money was ubiquitous before the Civil War. The federal government hadn’t yet issued currency, and coins were often in short supply. Notes issued by banks, merchants, and others emerged in a great proliferation. Issuance of private paper money was not illegal, but nevertheless, some notes were much easier to receive in transactions than to spend later. The Manual Labor Bank was one of the many enterprises of Thomas W. Dyott, a purveyor of patent medicines. He needed bottles for his concoctions (which included “Infallible Worm Destroying Lozenges” and “Vegetable Nervous Cordial”), and he acquired and expanded a glass factory near Philadelphia.

bank note vignette
Click on the image for a larger version

The central image (or vignette) on the one-dollar note shows workers in a glass factory, perhaps modeled after Dyott’s own enterprise. Right in the middle is Elvis with his white jump suit and sideburns, rolling out molten glass on the end of a blow pipe. It remains for future investigators to learn how Elvis progressed from glass blower to cultural icon.

Numismatics on your mind?

It’s not often that a story about numismatics makes the front page of the News and Observer, but it happened recently in the article “Humble Nickel from 1913 Likely to Fetch Millions.”

What’s numismatics, you ask? You aren’t the only one! It’s the collecting and study of coins and other types of money. What’s so interesting about money, other than nagging questions about whether one has enough of it? The N & O article is about a “trophy” coin: rare and highly desired by collectors with deep — very deep — pockets. Part of the appeal of this 1913 nickel is the mystery of how it was produced, the story of the North Carolinian who once owned it and then lost it, and of course its very high value.

But many pieces of currency have interesting stories to tell. Did you know that during the Civil War the State of North Carolina produced hundreds of varieties of paper money, denominated from five cents through $100? These are not the better-known paper money issued by the Confederacy. Both Confederate and state currencies confusingly circulated together to provide North Carolinians a medium of exchange. But the effort was not entirely successful. The paper money had no intrinsic value and was subject to counterfeiting, inflation, and discounting.

One example of North Carolina’s Civil War paper money is almost as rare as the 1913 nickel, although it does not command anywhere near the price or attention.

A two-dollar rarity

During the Civil War paper and production resources were scarce in the South. Both were obtained by any means possible. In October 1861, the North Carolina Institution for the Education of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, located in Raleigh, was pressed into service to print money. They left their imprint, “N. C. Inst. Deaf & Dumb, Print.,” on one- and two-dollar notes. The one-dollar note is fairly common, but the two-dollar note is a rarity, with perhaps only fifteen surviving. Paper money in this era was usually printed on only one side, and the plain backs of uncurrent bank notes were used as the paper stock for the two-dollar notes. This is recycling as economic necessity.

front of note

front of note

Fortunately for collectors today, most varieties of North Carolina’s Civil War paper money survived in significant quantities. The North Carolina Collection has an exceptional collection of numismatic material related to North Carolina, Civil War paper money and the two-dollar Deaf & Dumb note included.

It’s just one of many interesting stories associated with North Carolina’s old money.