A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from January 05, 2013
Wildcat Bank (Wildcat Money)

Entry in progress—B.P.


Wildcat banking refers to the unusual practices of banks chartered under state law during the periods of non-federally regulated state banking between 1816 and 1863 in the United States, also known as the Free Banking Era. This era, commonly described as an example of free banking, was not a period of true free banking, as banks were free of only federal regulation; banking was regulated by the states. The actual regulation of banking during this period varied from state to state.

According to some sources, the term came from a bank in Michigan that issued private paper currency with the image of a wildcat. After the bank failed, poorly backed bank notes became known as wildcat currency, and the banks that issued them as wildcat banks. However, according to others, wildcat meant a rash speculator as early as 1812, and by 1838 had been extended to any risky business venture. A common conception of the wildcat bank in Westerns and like stories was of a bank that left its safe somewhat ajar for depositors to see, in which the banker would display a barrel full of nails, grain or flour with a thin sprinkling of cash on top, thus fooling depositors into thinking it was a successful bank.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
wild cat, n.
An unsound business undertaking, as a ‘wild-cat bank’ (see 4b); also, a note, or notes collectively, of a ‘wild-cat bank’. (Orig. and chiefly U.S. colloq.)
1812 Columbian Centinel 6 June 2/5 Some of the Wild~cats of Congress.
1839 C. M. Kirkland New Home xxxi. 204 The celebrated term ‘Wild Cat,’ justified fully by the course of these cunning and stealthy bloodsuckers.
1861 ‘M. Twain’ Lett. (1917) I. iii. 54 ‘Wild cat’ isn’t worth ten cents.
(...)
fig. Applied to banks in the western United States which, before the passing of the National Bank Act of 1863, fraudulently issued notes with little or no capital, or to their notes or transactions; hence extended to unsound or risky business enterprises generally; also to illicit businesses or their products (e.g. wild-cat whisky); and more widely to reckless, rash, or extravagant undertakings, statements, etc. (cf. wild adj. 13), and (colloq.) with reference to wildcat strikes (see Compounds below).
This application is said to have arisen from the fact that the notes of a bank in Michigan bore the device of a panther, locally known by the name ‘wild cat’.
1838 The Jeffersonian (Albany, N.Y.) 14 Apr. 72/3 About 400 Irishmen working on the canal, took offence at being paid in ‘Wild Cat’ money, instead of Illinois.
1839 C. M. Kirkland New Home xxxi. 205 Once in the grasp of a ‘wild cat bank,’ his struggles were unavailing.
a1854 W. North Slave of Lamp 38 Much bogus coin and wild-cat, red dog bills are in circulation.