Podcast #32: History of Money in The United States

General Currency as an opening:

What is money? By definition, it's something of value. But over the last 10,000 years, the material form that money has taken has changed considerably—from cattle and cowrie shells to today's electronic currency.

32 minutes of recordings.

At first there was a barter system - people exchanged resources or services for mutual benefit. In fact, this is still going on today. In my advertising business, I have bartered services for other items or services I needed. I had a complete security installed along with cameras, thermostats, etc for a website and some digital services. I have bartered with several clients over the years. So long as everyone is getting what they need, it’s a great way to operate.

People have exchanged cattle and other livestock, food, services, labor, and other items throughout history.

At one point people were paid in salt... hence the term Salary or the saying "someone was worth their weight in salt".

In the United States we have a similar evolution, but the goal to get a unified system of exchange was important.
The bank may not be willing to take milk and eggs for their whole staff as a mortgage payment!

So what we want to accomplish in this podcast is to explain the evolution of currency here in the US.
Now, I want to point out that we are not talking about banking or the federal reserve, or Alexander Hamilton in this podcast. We are just going to show you the money!

We will divide this into two sections.
1- Pre US or the colonial times
2- US and forward

Early American colonists used English, Spanish and French money while they were under English rule.

Colonial Notes: 1690
Paper currency in the United States is born, issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to fund military expeditions. Other colonies quickly take up the practice of issuing paper notes.

Over the years, people started making copies or hiring artists who could replicate the notes. This was a problem, and will be a recurring problem.

1739: Ben Franklin was a staunch proponent of the colonies having their own money.
Benjamin Franklin takes on counterfeiting, using his Philadelphia printing firm to produce colonial notes with nature prints—unique raised patterns cast from actual leaves. This process adds an innovative and effective counterfeit deterrent to notes.

1766: Certain designs of Continental Currency feature illustrations inspired by the thirteen colonies fighting and defeating Great Britain in the American Revolution. These illustrations signify the colonies’ values and virtues.

The phrase “not worth a Continental” is coined after the Continental Congress issues paper currency to finance the Revolutionary War,

Continental Currency:

in 1775, when the Revolutionary War became inevitable, the Continental Congress authorized the issuance of currency to finance the conflict. Paul Revere made the first plates for this "Continental Currency." Those notes were redeemable in Spanish Milled Dollars. This currency quickly loses its value because of a lack of solid backing and the rise of counterfeiting.The depreciation of this currency gave rise to the phrase "not worth a Continental."

The $2 Bill and the introduction of the $ sign.

The first $2 bill was a $2 Continental

Interesting fact - the $2 continental is 9 days older than the signed declaration of independence. June 25 1776

The United States officially adopts the dollar sign in 1785 and it evolved from the Spanish American figure for pesos.

In 1791 - I said we were not going to talk about Hamilton - I lied. You can’t talk about money and its history here in the states without mentioning Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton establishes the Bank of the United States to create a system of credit for the government. The bank is the first of several in the country to issue private currencies facilitating borrowing and lending.

After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Congress passed the "Mint Act" of April 2, 1792, which established the coinage system of the United States and the dollar as the principal unit of currency. By this Act the U.S., became the first country in the world to adopt the decimal system for currency. The first U.S. coins were struck in 1793 at the Philadelphia Mint and presented to Martha Washington.

1813 - James Madison - we have a whole podcast on him…

James Madison’s portrait is featured on multiple series of the $5,000 Treasury bearer notes. These large value notes are originally redeemable for gold. The back side of the note features George Washington resigning his commission.

1861 - The introduction of the term Greenbacks”

In order to finance the Civil War, Congress authorizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury to issue non-interest-bearing Demand Notes. These notes earn the nickname “greenbacks” because of the green ink on the back. All U.S. currency issued since 1861 remains valid and redeemable at full face value….but should you come across one of these notes, I’d suggest you not trade them for their face value!!!

The first $10 notes issued by the U.S. federal government are Demand Notes, featuring President Abraham Lincoln’s portrait, fine-line engraving, and intricate geometric lathe patterns. Each Demand Note was immediately redeemable in gold or silver “upon demand” at seven specific banks around the nation. The Treasury issued Demand Notes in 1861 and 1862.


After the Treasury issued Demand Notes, Congress authorizes a new class of currency known as “United States notes” or “Legal Tender notes.” These notes replace Demand Notes. They continued to circulate until 1971. Similar to Demand Notes, they are nicknamed "greenbacks."

Salmon Chase and the Modern Design

The Treasury seal first appears on currency during the Civil War. The federal government issues the first $1 Legal Tender" notes. These banknotes feature a portrait of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

By 1862, the Demand Notes incorporate fine-line engraving, intricate geometric lathe work patterns, a U.S. Department of the Treasury seal, and engraved signatures to aid in counterfeit deterrence. To this day, U.S. currency continues to add features to deter counterfeiting.

The Treasury seal first appears on currency during the Civil War. While the color and style of the seal changes over the years, the internal seal remains essentially the same to modern day with a key, scales, and stars.

1863 - Liberty and Justice

American money has depicted Liberty and Justice as allegorical figures. On interest-bearing notes of 1863, Justice can be seen holding her scales. She appears on the right side of a $50 bill from 1880 holding a sword and shield.

Congress establishes a national banking system and authorizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury to oversee the issuance of National Banknotes. This system sets Federal guidelines for chartering and regulating "national" banks and authorizes those banks to issue national currency secured by the purchase of United States bonds.

Trumball’s Paintings

The first $100 and $500 national bank notes feature John Trumbull’s paintings “Declaration of Independence” and “Surrender of General Burgoyne.” Both paintings now hang in the U.S. Capitol Building.


The United States Secret Service is established to deter counterfeiters, whose activities diminish the public’s confidence in the nation's currency. 

1869 - George Washington first appears on the $1

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing begins engraving and printing the faces and seals of U.S. banknotes. Before this, U.S. banknotes were produced by private banknote companies and then sent to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for sealing, trimming, and cutting.

Engraving and Printing 1874

Congressional legislation recognizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) with specific allocation of operating funds for fiscal year 1875.

1877 Congress mandates that the U.S. Department of the Treasury solely performs the engraving and printing of notes, bonds, and other securities of the United States.

1878 The U.S. Department of the Treasury issues silver certificates. Legislation directing an increase in the purchase and coinage of silver authorizes the creation of the certificates.

1881 - Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce

Former United States Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce is the first African-American to have his signature on American paper currency. He becomes the Register of the United States Treasury in 1881.

1886 - Women on Currency - $1 silver certificates feature Martha Washington in their 1886 and 1896 series.

Martha Washington is the first and only woman to grace the primary portrait of U.S. paper currency.)

1890 - Treasury Notes

The U.S. Department of the Treasury begins issuing Treasury notes.


Jim the Penman

Emmanuel Ninger is arrested for counterfeiting banknotes. Nicknamed “Jim the Penman” by the U.S. Secret Service, Ninger uses only a pen and a brush to counterfeit money. While his work is convincing, he is caught because the ink dissolved on one of his counterfeits.


Educational Note Series

In 1896 US released a series of silver certificates with neoclassical designs. They were referred to as the "Educational Series". The $1 note had allegorical figures of history instructing the youth. Two dollar notes had figures of science presenting the children, Steam and Electricity, to adults, Commerce and Manufacture.



Federal Reserve Act

In 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, establishing this nation's Federal Reserve System. This Act authorized the Federal Reserve Banks to issue Federal Reserve Bank notes. In 1914, the Federal Reserve Banks began issuing Federal Reserve notes - the only currency still being manufactured today by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The First $10 Federal Reserve Notes

The Federal Reserve Board, which is separate from the Treasury Department, issues $10 Federal Reserve notes featuring Andrew Jackson's portrait. These notes are physically larger than $10 bills currently in circulation.

Introduction of "Large Denomination Banknotes"

In 1918, the Federal Reserve Board begins issuing currency in $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 denominations.

$1,000 Federal Reserve Notes

The Federal Reserve Board issues $1,000 notes featuring Alexander Hamilton’s portrait. This bill was discontinued in 1969. 1928 series had Grover Cleveland’s image

$5000 - James Madison

$10,000 Federal Reserve Notes

The Federal Reserve Board issues $10,000 notes featuring Salmon P. Chase’s portrait. This note is intended for bank-to-bank large value transfers, not public circulation.

1928 - $10 bill with Automobile

Keeping up with technology in the world, BEP engraver Louis S. Schofield added an automobile in front of the Treasury building image on the back of the $10 notes issued between 1928 and 1996. The car was based on a number of different models and brands that were available in the 1920s.

Also in 1928 Serial numbers start getting added to the bills.


Standardization of Design

$1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100

The appearance of U.S. banknotes changes greatly in 1929. In an effort to lower manufacturing costs, all Federal Reserve notes are made about 30 percent smaller—measuring 6.14 x 2.61 inches, rather than 7.375 x 3.125 inches. In addition, standardized designs are instituted for each denomination, decreasing the number of designs in circulation and making it easier for the public to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes.

1934 - $100,000 Gold Certificate

The Treasurer of the United States issues $100,000 gold certificates to Federal Reserve Banks to settle large value transactions. The gold certificate features Woodrow Wilson and do not circulate amongst the public.

Imagine making these larger transactions with $20, $50 and $100 bills?

1935 - Great Seal of the United States

$1 Federal Reserve notes feature the obverse and reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. The Seal dates to 1782. Its reverse side depicts the Eye of Providence and an unfinished pyramid symbolizing the nation’s strength and duration. The Seal’s obverse side shows an eagle bearing a shield and clutching both an olive branch and arrows in its talons.

1935 Victor Lustig is arrested for using a “money-making machine” to produce counterfeit currency. His operations were based in St Louis

1941 "Know Your Money" Campaign

The Secret Service prints “Know Your Money” booklets to educate the public on designs and features of genuine currency. It features cartoons and displays images of counterfeit bills next to genuine bills.

Comical -


Looks good - Looks bad differentiators

1942 - Special World War II Currency

The BEP prints Silver Certificates and Federal Reserve notes bearing a “Hawaii” overprint. These items only circulate in Hawaii, and their brown seals and serial numbers differentiate from other certificates. They are easily identifiable and can be declared valueless if Hawaii is overran by enemy forces.

1943 - Allied Military Currency

The BEP prints Allied Military Currency for the use by Allied invasion forces in Italy. AMC helped prevent inflation after an Allied forces landed in Sicily. Soldiers used similar AMC in Austria, Germany, France and Japan.

1945 $500 Federal Reserve Notes

The Federal Reserve Board issues $500 bills that feature President William McKinley’s portrait. These circulate for roughly two decades and remains legal tender.

1956 "In God We Trust"

Following a 1955 law requiring “In God We Trust” on all currency, the motto first appears on banknotes on series 1957 $1 silver certificates, then on 1963 series Federal Reserve notes.

"In God We Trust" (sometimes rendered "In God we trust") is the official motto of the United States[1][2][3] and of the U.S. state of Florida.[4][5] It was adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1956, replacing E pluribus unum, which means Out of many, one,  had been the de facto motto since the initial 1776 design of the Great Seal of the United States.[6]


While the earliest mentions of the phrase can be found in the mid-18th century, the origins of this phrase as a political motto lie in the American Civil War, where Union supporters wanted to emphasize their attachment to God and to boost morale.[7] The capitalized form "IN GOD WE TRUST" first appeared on the two-cent piece in 1864[8] and has appeared on paper currency since 1957 and on post stamps since 1954. A law passed in a Joint Resolution by the 84th Congress (Pub.L. 84–140) and approved by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 30, 1956, requires that "In God We Trust" appear on all American currency. The following year, the phrase was used on paper money for the first time—on the updated one-dollar silver certificate that entered circulation on October 1, 1957.[8] The 84th Congress later passed legislation (Pub.L. 84–851), also signed by President Eisenhower on July 30, 1956, declaring the phrase to be the national motto.[9][10][11] Several states have also mandated or authorised its use in public institutions or schools;[12][13] while Florida, Georgia and Mississippi have incorporated the phrase in some of their state symbols.


Some groups and people have objected to its use, contending that its religious reference violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.[14] These groups believe the phrase should be removed from currency and public property, which has resulted in numerous lawsuits. This argument has not overcome the interpretational doctrine of accommodationism, which allows government to endorse religious establishments as long as they are all treated equally, and that of "ceremonial deism", which states that a repetitious invocation of a religious entity in ceremonial matters strips the phrase of its original religious connotation.[15] The New Hampshire Supreme Court, as well as Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have all upheld the constitutionality of the motto in various settings. The Supreme Court has discussed the motto in footnotes but has never directly ruled on its compliance with the Constitution.[16]


The motto remains popular among the American public. According to a 2003 joint poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup, 90% of Americans support the inscription "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins;[17] however, a 2019 student poll by College Pulse showed that only 53% of students supported its inclusion in currency.[18]


The First ATM

Automated teller machines (ATM) first appeared in New York City. They allow bank customers to retrieve cash from their accounts without needing to visit the bank.

Congress prohibits the redemption of currency for gold. 

1969 - End of Large Denomination Bills

On July 14, 1969, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that banknotes in denominations of $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 would be discontinued due to lack of use. Although they were issued until 1969, they were last printed in 1945.

1971 - United States Notes Discontinued

Because United States notes no longer served any function not already adequately met by Federal Reserve notes, their issuance was discontinued and, beginning in 1971, no new United States notes were placed into circulation.


The government did not issue paper money until 1861. In the interim years, however, the government did issue "Treasury notes" intermittently during periods of financial stress, such as the War of 1812, the Mexican War of 1846, and the Panic of 1857.

During this same period (1793 - 1861), approximately 1,600 private banks were permitted to print and circulate their own paper currency under state charters. Eventually, 7,000 varieties of these "state bank notes" were put in circulation, each carrying a different design!

With the onset of the Civil War, the government - desperate for money to finance the war - passed the Act of July 17, 1861, permitting the Treasury Department to print and circulate paper money. The first paper money issued by the government were "demand notes" commonly referred to as "greenbacks." In 1862, Congress retired the demand notes and began issuing United States notes, also called legal tender notes.

(Series 1889 One Dollar Silver Certificate)

Image courtesy of United States Secret Service

Under Congressional Acts of 1878 and 1886, five different issues of "silver certificates" were produced, ranging from $1 to $1,000 dollar notes. The Treasury exchanged silver certificates for silver dollars because the size and weight of the silver coins made them unpopular. The last series of silver certificates was issued in 1923. However, the last series of modern silver certificates produced were the series 1957B/1935H $1 notes, series 1953C $5 notes, and 1953B $10 notes.

During the period from 1863 to 1929, the Government again permitted thousands of banks to issue their own notes under the National Banks Acts of 1863 and 1864. These were called "national bank notes," but unlike the earlier "state bank notes," they were produced on paper authorized by the U.S. government and carried the same basic design.

1976 - Reintroduction of the $2 Note

On the 233rd anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, and to commemorate the bicentennial, the $2 Federal Reserve note is re-introduced featuring a new vignette: Trumbull's painting "The Signing of the Declaration of Independence."

1977 - Azie Taylor Morton

Azie Taylor Morton is the first African-American woman to have her signature on a Federal Reserve note. Morton is the 36th Treasurer of the United States.

1990 - Security Thread and Microprinting

A security thread and microprinting are introduced in Federal Reserve notes to deter counterfeiting by copiers and printers. The features first appear in Series 1990 $100 notes. By Series 1993, the features appeared on all denominations except $1 and $2 notes.

1996 - Currency Redesign

In the first significant design change since the 1920s, U.S. currency is redesigned to incorporate a series of new counterfeit deterrents. Issuance of the new banknotes begins with the $100 note in 1996, followed by the $50 note in 1997, the $20 note in 1998, and the $10 and $5 notes in 2000.

2003 - The Redesigned $20 Note

The new-design $20 note features subtle background colors of green and peach. The $20 note includes an embedded security thread that glows green when illuminated by UV light. When held to light, a portrait watermark of President Jackson is visible from both sides of the note. In addition, the note includes a color-shifting numeral 20 in the lower right corner of the note.

2004 - The Redesigned $50 Note

The currency redesigns continue with the $50 note, which features subtle background colors of blue and red. The $50 note includes an embedded security thread that glows yellow when illuminated by UV light. When held to light, a portrait watermark of President Grant is visible from both sides of the note. In addition, the note includes a color-shifting numeral 50 in the lower right corner of the note.

2006 The Redesigned $10 Note

The new-design $10 note features subtle background colors of orange, yellow, and red. The $10 note includes an embedded security thread that glows orange when illuminated by UV light. When held to light, a portrait watermark of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton is visible from both sides of the note. In addition, the note includes a color-shifting numeral 10 in the lower right corner of the note.

2008 The Redesigned $5 Note

The new-design $5 note features subtle background colors of light purple and gray. The $5 note includes an embedded security thread that glows blue when illuminated by UV light. Two watermarks are featured in the $5 note, which are visible from both sides of the note when held to light. A vertical pattern of three numeral 5s is situated to the left of the portrait and a large numeral 5 is located in the blank space to the right of the portrait.

2013 The Redesigned $100 Note

In its first redesign since 1996, the new-design $100 note features additional security features including a 3-D Security Ribbon and color-shifting Bell in the Inkwell. The new-design $100 note also includes a portrait watermark of Benjamin Franklin that is visible from both sides of the note when held to light.

2015 - Federal Reserve Currency Website

The Federal Reserve Board launches uscurrency.gov to inform the public about the security and design features of Federal Reserve notes. This website offers multi-lingual educational materials free for public use. This website is where we found most of the information for this podcast!


2020 Banknote Recycling

The 12 Federal Reserve Banks repurpose banknotes not fit for circulation. The banks shred and reuse money that is too worn or dirty for a number of purposes, such as insulation or compost.

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