mystic bank sign at mystic seaport museumThe average Mystic family of 1850 would never have used this bank. This was a commercial bank, and checking and savings accounts as we know them were not available. Instead, dependable businessmen could secure loans and mortgages here, to support solid ventures like shipbuilding or farming. No bank would finance such a risky venture as a whaling voyage. Though the Mystic Bank was founded through the investments of a number of “directors,” the bank actually had only two employees–the President and the Cashier. Elias Brown and George W. Noyes were the first two gentlemen to hold these positions.

Businesses need money to grow. Mystic’s shipbuilding and coasting trades were growing fast in the early 1800s, and soon needed a bank. In 1833, local businessmen opened this small bank at the head of the Mystic River, two miles north of here in Old Mystic. By 1856, they were ready to move into a new, larger building nearby. In 1951 this Greek Revival building was dismantled, brought down river from its original site, and rebuilt here. The original portico, which was missing, was replaced with an exact reproduction, a new floor was installed and the walls were replastered.

Vaults like the one in this bank were not built of granite to prevent burglaries. The real fear of the day was fire, and the bank’s vault was the most fireproof place in a mid-19th-century town. The bank held its reserves of gold, silver, and banknotes inside the vault, alongside strongboxes containing customers’ most valuable legal documents and business records. In seaports like Mystic, local ship owners kept a separate strongbox for each vessel, containing accounts, registry papers, logbooks, and ledgers. The box marked Acushnet contained the papers of the Fairhaven, Massachusetts, whaleship on which Herman Melville shipped out as an ordinary seaman in 1841–the voyage which inspired his masterpiece Moby-Dick.

The Shipping Office on the second floor contains furniture and records of an office dating from the last half of the 19th century.


Until the National Banking Act of 1862, the U.S. had no provision for a universally accepted paper currency. Gold, silver, and copper coinage of set value had been among the first priorities of the federal government, and the Spanish milled dollar — piece of eight — was legal tender in the U.S. until 1857. However, coins were never common enough to circulate throughout small-town America, and gold and silver were commonly hoarded during the economic depressions that beset the early nation. Small transactions with shopkeepers and between farmers and tradesmen were often recorded as book debts, with credit and debit accounts rectified periodically, and sometimes taken to court for resolution.

To make small transactions more efficient, local banks began to issue banknotes in the 1820s. These small-denomination notes were supposed to be underwritten by the bank’s assets. To discourage counterfeiting, the notes were printed from copper plates engraved with increasingly intricate designs, produced by engraving companies such as the American Bank Note Company. Often they bore vignettes representing local scenes or themes of agriculture or commerce. Notes issued in maritime towns like Mystic often had images of ships, shipbuilding, or sailors. Locally, banknotes might circulate at face value, but if they travelled far from home, or if a bank’s assets declined or the economy worsened, they were valued at a discount. Americans did not have a reliable circulating currency until the U.S. Treasury began issuing “greenbacks” during the Civil War and chartered national banks spread the federal system locally.