I’m fascinated with paper money.
I love how beautiful the banknotes of other nations are.
I love the rich history you can learn by seeing who, or what, a country puts on its paper money.
And I’m always a little saddened when I see the design of our banknotes. We take the term “greenback” a little too seriously. They’re all the same size. Until Harriet Tubman appears on the $20 bill, there are no women. There hadn’t been a woman on any of the United States’ currency since 1978 when Susan B. Anthony was on the dollar coin.
C’mon folks. Our money is sooooooo boring.
They’re so boring, designers have reimagined them and the new bills look so much sexier.
If you were to go back in time… to the days of yore… our money was a little bit cooler, especially when you consider the technology available back then. What you didn’t have in terms of printing and dyes you made up with denominations. 🙂
Table of Contents
A Brief History of US Currency
Before we get into the bills themselves, we’ve had a lot of different names written on our currency. You are most familiar with Federal Reserve Note, it’s written on the top of every bill today. A Federal Reserve Note (FRN) is legal tender and, when printed and put into circulation, are liabilities of the Federal Reserve Banks and an obligation of the United States.
Before FRNs, there were United States Notes (1862-1971), or Legal Tender Notes, and were the longest issued type of paper money. The United States Notes were authorized as fiat currency, which meant they didn’t have the backing of any physical commodity. They are still valid currency but haven’t been issued since 1971.
Demand Notes (August 1861 – April 1862) preceded United States Notes and had green backs, hence the term “greenbacks.” If you know your history, you’ll note this was during the Civil War – the US Government printed Demand Notes to help pay for expenses. This was also the first time that the US Government began printing money for widespread circulation.
OK – so now we know about Federal Reserve Notes, United States notes, and Demand Notes.
Now we have certificates – Silver and Gold certificates. These are not fiat currency, these are bills that are backed by a physical commodity (silver or gold). Gold certificates were issued between 1863 and 1933 while silver certificates were issued between 1878 and 1964.
Now, not every type of bill had high denominations. For example, for silver certificates, you only had $500 and $1,000 bills. Gold certificates ran the whole gamut, from $500 to $100,000. Federal Reserve Notes had all but the $100,000.
In each case below, I just chose one that I thought looked the best. 🙂
$100,000 US Banknote
We had to start with the Big Boy.
The largest denomination bill ever produced by the United States was the $100,000 bill, featuring Woodrow Wilson. The last time it was printed was back in 1945 and in 1969, all banknotes above $500 were discontinued.
The $500, $1000, $5000, and $10000 are all floating out there in circulation, though mostly in the hands of collectors, and are legal tender. The $100,000 is a special case, it was never generally circulated, and cannot be legally held by collectors.
It looks like Monopoly money!
$10,000 US Banknote
There were several $10,000 notes, the one pictured above is a Federal Reserve Note; there are a series of Gold Certificates too and the back of the bills vary. They all feature Salmon P. Chase, who served as the 25th Secretary of the Treasury, and other prominent roles, under Abraham Lincoln.
$5,000 US Banknote
That man is none other than James Madison, the 4th President of the United States. Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State and supervised the Louisiana Purchase from France. He’s also considered the “Father of the Constitution” for being crucial in the drafting the Constitution and championing the Bill of Rights.
This is a gold certificate from 1882. Note the color of the back, you can see why they started nicknaming the later notes as greenbacks.
$500 US Banknote
This is another gold certificate but it’s from 1928, which is after the issuance of demand notes and their green back.
Check out this earlier gold certificate with Abraham Lincoln.
$500 bills were plentiful with a lot of different styles since $500 is far easier to spend than $100,000, wouldn’t you say? You had silver certificates, Federal Reserve Notes, etc. It and the $1,000 notes had the most variation and we won’t show all of them here. You can see the whole list of every large denomination bill on Wikipedia.
My Favorite Bill – The Badass Bald Eagle of the $10,000
This is hands down, my favorite bill. First, it’s $10,000 issued in 1878. The BLS’ CPI calculator only goes back to 1913 and $10k in 1913 is about a quarter-million today. Imagine walking around with a quarter-million-dollar bill in your pocket!
Next, just look at this bad boy:
Love that eagle!
What’s your favorite bill?
Want some more fun? Here are the world’s most exclusive credit cards. Credit cards trimmed in gold, yup, they exist.