It’s not just paper. From the first notes issued by the Continental Congress to the latest star-spangled bills released by the Federal Reserve, the history of money in America is laced with rebellion, propaganda, and — of course — lots and lots of wealth. It’s awkwardly beautiful.
The history of paper currency, specifically, serves as a curious lens through which to understand the origins of this complicated nation. Like the government itself, money in America dates back to 1776 when the Continental Congress issued the country’s first official dollar bills. But before and well after that, it had been a free-for-all with any bank or state able to issue its own currency. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the nation’s currency would be standardised and even recognisable to present-day observers.
How we got here is a bit of a twisted tale.
From Many to One
Appropriately enough, the word “dollar” can be traced back to the early days New York City. In the 17th century, New York was a Dutch settlement known as New Amsterdam, and the currency of choice was the leeuwendaler, or lion dollar. The word became widely used in all 13 colonies not only to refer to the Dutch currency but also the peso de ocho (piece of eight), or Spanish dollar.
In the years leading up to America’s independence, each of the colonies started issuing their own currencies. Some used the term dollar, and others used British denominations like shillings and pence. When the American Revolution began in 1775, however, the Continental Congress issued the nation’s first paper currency: the United States Dollar. These were commonly known as Continentals, and the British quickly took to counterfeiting them as a method of economic warfare.
Counterfeiting was hardly a new problem. Even colonial currencies had anti-counterfeiting measures already in place. Common method involved including intricate, designs and even using actual plant leaves in the printing process to create unique patterns on the notes. Of course, adding the phrase “’Tis DEATH to Counterfeit” also served as a grim reminder of the punishment for the crime:
The back of a 1770 Maryland dollar that could be exchanged in London for four shillings and six pence worth of gold
The design of the first Continentals largely resembles the colonial currencies that came before it. The denominations ran from one sixth of a dollar up to $80, and each note featured an ornate border with text that read “United States of North America.” Now familiar iconography also appeared on the notes, namely the unfinished pyramid with 13 levels for the original 13 colonies. Whether it’s either an early reference to Manifest Destiny or a secret Masonic symbol embedded by the Illuminati, the pyramid would later gain an all-seeing eye on top and become the back of the Great Seal of the United States.
A $50 Continental note from 1779
Over the course of the Revolution, the Continental Congress would issue over $240 million worth of these notes. The currency was rapidly devalued due, in part, to highly skilled British counterfeiters flooding the market with fakes. Inflation spread so fast that the notes were practically worthless by 1881 and ultimately led to the idea that any currency in the United States would need to be backed by silver or gold.
The Coinage Act of 1792 would define the silver dollar as the primary unit of money in the United States. Signed by George Washington himself, the law established the Mint as well as the coin system still used today—from the copper penny to the silver dime all the way up to the gold $10 eagle. Only coins were considered legal tender, however. It took nearly a century before any semblance of order would emerge in the paper money game.
The Wildcat Era
Things got complicated as the newly independent United States started to grow. While the Coinage Act gave the young nation a currency, the federal government didn’t issue banknotes until the Civil War. This left the task of printing paper money to the states and to private banks. You can imagine the chaos that ensued.
Throughout the early 1800s, there was an endless variety of banknotes. All of the paper money looked different, and the further you traveled away from the issuing bank, the less it was worth. For example, a $5 bill from the Agricultural Bank of Tennessee might only be worth $4 in New York. Banks would keep logs of various banknotes and their exchange rates, an especially difficult task in an era before modern communications. And most importantly, the private banknotes were not legal tender. They were only worth something if the issuing bank could redeem them.
An example of wildcat currency from the early 19th century
To make things even trickier, scam artists got involved. Since any bank chartered by a state could start printing money, some people would open up so-called “wildcat banks” in a remote region and start issuing private banknotes. Because the banks were out of the way—especially out West—it was more difficult for people to redeem those banknotes, and the notes would be worthless if the bank failed.
There was another big problem with the wildcat era, also known as the Free Banking period. Counterfeiting was easy. Any crook could take worthless wildcat currency, scratch off the name of the failed bank and replace it with a legitimate one. Because bookkeepers wouldn’t always know what a specific bank’s design looked like, they were easily tricked. Eventually, the problems caused by the wildcat currency would lead the federal government to create a national banking system with a national currency. The Civil War played a role, too, of course.
The Birth of the Greenback
The Civil War was a complex crisis that was complicated even further by the limited amount of legal tender in circulation. Again, paper money was not considered legal tender up until this point. Even private banknotes were supposed to be backed by gold or silver.
War is expensive, and both the Union and the Confederacy needed a way to pay soldiers. The South rushed to print its own money, and the first Confederate dollars entered circulation just two months after the Southern states split off from the rest of the nation. Sometimes referred to as “Greybacks,” these bank notes were not backed by gold or silver, although it was written on the bills that they’d be redeemed “six months after the ratification of a treaty of peace between the Confederate States and the United States.” That obviously never happened.
While some Confederate notes featured leaders like Jefferson Davis, this $10 from 1862 depicts a slave picking cotton.
Short-lived as they were, the Confederate dollars bore some design elements that would also appear on United States currency in the years to come. The ornate but simple border, engraving style, and two-colour printing should look familiar.
As the Confederate States started circulating its own dollars, the Union rushed to find a financial solution of its own. Congress passed a law to print $50 million worth of Demand Notes in the summer of 1861. These banknotes were considered legal tender and were backed by bonds. By 1863, however, they were almost all out of circulation, since the government used them to pay customs duties.
Abraham Lincoln was originally featured on this $10 United States banknote from 1862.
Taking the suggestion of an Illinois businessman, President Lincoln convinced Congress to approve a plan for issuing unbacked paper currency in 1862. The Legal Tender Act authorised $150 million worth of full legal tender Treasury notes. While the design largely resembled the limited Demand Notes, the Treasury seal is stamped on the front of each note. The large rectangular bills earned the nickname “Greenbacks,” naturally, because the backs were printed in green ink.
Greenbacks represented the first widely issued paper money in the United States, since the Continentals. The banknotes were printed by the National Bank Note Company and employed a number of techniques not only to celebrate America’s national identity but also to prevent counterfeiting. The engraving was performed by a master craftsman and produced a unique texture on the paper. The baroque designs on both sides the banknotes were produced with a little bit of mechanical help. A device akin to a Spirograph enabled the engravers to produce the beautiful geometric scrollwork patterns that can still be found on American money today. Even the recognisable typeface remains largely the same.
Remarkably, this is only the beginning of America’s growing obsession with money. After the war and throughout the Gilded Age, the designs became intensely sophisticated and eventually legendary. Every banknote was a work of art.
The Silver Certificates
After all that about war and the Wild West, it’s time to talk about the golden age of American currency design. While greenbacks remained widely used for the rest of the 19th century, new types of paper money were issued, and holy hell, were they beautiful.
Let’s start with Silver Certificates. In 1886, the United States issued the first and only banknote to feature the face of a real woman on the front. Martha Washington appears on the original $1 Silver Certificate. (She was also on the back of a different Silver Certificate along with her husband George.) As the name implies, the banknotes were redeemable for real silver and were offered in denominations of $1 through $1,000 over the course of nearly a century.
As you can see, the once-simple borders have evolved to include more scrollwork and text. The almost spider-web like designs around the larger one embellishes the earlier style of the Greenbacks. The engraving of Martha Washington is almost lifelike. Believe it or not, this is one of the more humble Silver Certificates.
On the heels of the World’s Columbia Exhibition in Chicago, the federal government released the Education Series which is widely regarded as the most beautiful American money of all. Perhaps the most complex design is the $1 bill featuring Columbia—who was not a real woman—pointing at the newly completed Washington Monument.
The $1 Silver Certificate from the 1896 Series, also known as the Education Series
And this is the aforementioned back featuring both George and Martha Washington. Check out the angels daring out of the corners!
The back of the $1 Silver Certificate from the 1896 Series
It gets better. The $5 Silver Certificate from the same year is batshit awesome. Featuring a depiction of “Electricity Presenting Light to the World,” it not only presents a startling almost futurist aesthetic but also celebrate the new American dominance in technology and innovation. Thomas Edison must’ve loved it.
The $5 Silver Certificate from the 1896 Series
During this same time period the Legal Tender notes remained in circulation. However, it was on the Silver Certificates—and, to a lesser degree, the Gold Certificates—that the most recognisable aspects of American money design started to be come fairly standardised.
Running Antelope is featured on the $5 Silver Certificate from 1899.
The shape of the borders and location of the portrait would evolve slightly over time, but this is pretty much what American money looked like for the entire 20th century. Silver Certificates can still but used as legal tender today, though the government stopped issuing them in 1957.
The Gold Certificates (With a Little Technicolour, Too)
The federal government started issuing Gold Certificates a few years before Silver Certificates, though they weren’t quite as widespread. The earliest series in 1865 came only in high denominations and looked a bit like the Legal Tender notes introduced around the same time. You could call them “goldbacks”.
However, in the early years of the 20th century, a new and rather familiar design appeared. Using a three-ink printing process, the Gold Certificates were wonderfully vivid, so much so that the 1905 Series is commonly known as the “Technicolor Series”. You can see why.
George Washington on the stunning $20 Gold Certificate from 1905
The federal government continued to print Gold Certificates in denominations as high as $100,000 until 1934. The last of them look very similar to the standardised currency design, although some still had that sick bright gold back.
The back of a $1,000 Gold Certificate from 1907. Alexander Hamilton was on the front.
It really screams America, doesn’t it?
Little Bitty and Slightly Less Pretty
Everything changed once again when Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. This set up a system whereby Federal Reserve Notes were distributed to various Federal Reserve Banks around the country. The banknotes are legal tender backed by Fed, though Gold and Silver Certificates continued to be produced for quite some time. However, it was the new Fed system that brought us the timeless American money design that survived most of the 20th century.
At first, the notes remained as large as earlier banknotes. The front featured dead presidents, black and red or blue ink printed on a very special paper from Cranes.
This $100 Federal Reserve Note from 1914 depicts an unusual profile of Ben Franklin
Many of the images on the back portrayed famous moments in American history or more generic depictions of American industry and values.
This $5 Federal Reserve Note from 1914 shows the struggles of early settlers
Then came the most dramatic shift. American money got smaller. While all bills up until this point had been roughly 7.5-by-3 inches, every single banknote began to shrink to about 6-by-2.5 inches in 1928. The government decided to shrink the bills for a number of different reasons, the most impactful of which was the savings on paper.
The small bills also got a redesign, one that remained in place until 1995. Since many of these bills are still in circulation—in fact, the $1 bill remains unchanged—you can spot them instantly. You’ve probably never seen a $10,000 bill, though.
Salmon Chase appears on the $10,000 Federal Reserve Note from 1934
While it’s unusual not to see a president on more modern money, Chase was an exception player in the history of American money. He was Treasury Secretary under Abraham Lincoln and introduced the nation’s first paper money and national bank. The federal government last issued the $10,000, $5,000, $1,000, and $500 in 1934. Today, the largest bill in circulation is the $100.
Increasingly Awful Redesigns
This brings us to the ambitious redesign of 1996. In an effort to improve anti-counterfeiting measures, the federal government redesigned five of the six remaining denominations of Federal Reserve Notes: $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. The presidents’ heads got bigger and were moved off centre. Much of the beautiful engraving and scrollwork on the borders went away. New methods of thwarting counterfeiters, like colour changing ink, also appeared on some of the bills. Still, it didn’t take long for a clever Chicago man to crack it and start printing virtually identical counterfeit $100 bills in his basement.
The familiar new $100 bill that first appeared in 1996
The design from 1996 wasn’t the worst. However, the federal government updated the design yet again in 2003 adding more colours, more security measures, and a truly awful portrayal of American sophistication. Remember the star-spangled bill I mentioned earlier?
Oh say can you see that ugly flag graphic?
American money design is invariably a representation of who we are as a country—or at least what we’d like to be. We see the images on paper money daily, some more than others. But more importantly, it’s a message we’re sending out to the world when the dollar leaves these borders. When outsiders enter it, it’s perhaps the government-made product they handle the most.
None of this is to say these slivers of ink and paper define us. Come on, though. It’s America. Sure they do.
Images via Wikipedia / American Museum of Finance
One more thing: A special thanks to the American Museum of Finance, as well as their currency consultant Mark Anderson, who helped immensely with the research for this post. You can see all of the banknotes picture above in real life at American in Circulation: A History of US Currency, currently on display at the museum. You can also read more about every note in American history on the museum’s website.