A half dozen college students hovered around Wesley Smith’s displays of historical currency at the Hendrix College cafeteria this week. Some leaned forward to study the bills closely.
"It’s so amazing," said Wadzanayi Chikungwa, an international student at Hendrix from Zimbabwe.
Chikungwa and her friend Jackie Nyamutumbu, also of Zimbabwe, posed for a photograph with Smith and asked questions about the money. Zimbabwe doesn’t have a great history of its currency that could go in a display like what Smith has created, Chikungwa and Nyamutumbu said.
Smith’s neatly framed displays show U.S. money from 1792 and ending with a series of notes called fractional currency that stopped in 1876. The display is at Hendrix because the fractional currency was released 150 years ago on Aug. 21, 1862 and coincides with the date when college students started back this year, Smith said.
The display at Hendrix is open to the public, but people will have to buy lunch to enter the dinning hall, Smith said.
Eventually, Smith hopes the display will go somewhere where a lot of people can see it, he said. He is looking for other places to display his collection and asking people to fill out a survey about where it should go.
"I just wanted to do something for the people," Smith said. "And this is history. It’s like finding a stitch in time."
Smith has spent more than three years collecting the currency. He bought most of his notes and coins from Ebay, an online auction site, and has spent about $30,000 on the collection, he said.
On Monday, the day the display went up, about 50 people came, Smith said. About 100 students came to see the display by about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The display ends at 7 p.m. Friday, Smith said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Smith pointed out the Lady of Columbia on a note to students and said it is the old name for America. He told students about the counterfeit note for 50 cents he has. And, he showed his prize — a note with Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman on the same bill in circulated condition. That condition is unheard of for a bill taken from the mint, Smith said. The only time the note could have been used is between 1866-1876, he said. After that the money was discontinued.
"History is just fascinating," Smith said. "If you want to tell the future, just look in the past. It will help you with the present."