Wednesday, January 12, 2011

U.S. Currency: From Primitive to Ornate to Futuristic

1896 $1 BillSometime this year the latest modification to U.S. currency will be seen in a new $100 bill.  It will be a striking departure from the past, featuring a vertical three-dimensional security strip and a color-changing “Bell in the Inkwell” design.  See:

Since 1996, the currency has been repeatedly changed, most notably at first with the enlarging of the portraits on the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills.  Because of this tinkering, including the introduction of new colors, some have jokingly commented on the “Monopoly money.” 

The purpose for these changes has been to thwart counterfeiters, including drug dealers.  Special attention been given to the $100, the largest circulating bill.

Such changes may seem odd to older Americans long accustomed to a scheme of bills which had changed little since 1929.  But that belies the interesting journey U.S. currency has taken.

In colonial and later 18th-century America, there was a wide array of notes, some issued by the Continental Congress (“Continental Currency”) but there also were many from individual states.  Most were crudely printed on darker paper and resembled a bookplate.
This early currency was straightforward, including the denomination, date and a signature for official endorsement.  Inks were usually black, brown and red.  Printers’ names often appeared, and these included notable ones such as Benjamin Franklin and John Dunlap (printer of the Declaration of Independence).

And as if to show us some continuity between the colonial period and the present, a prime concern of the issuing government was counterfeiting.  Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were among those which had this statement on bills:  “To Counterfeit is Death.” 

Nineteenth-century notes varied considerably.  Because there was no national currency before the Civil War, banks, railroads and canals issued bills in various denominations, which were generally only good in the immediate area.  The aesthetics ranged from primitive to impressive art.

This all changed in the early years of the war, beginning in 1861, when a national currency was created.  Some odd remnants of the past remained, such as “fractional currency”—small 3-, 5-, 10-, 15-, 25- and 50-cent notes used for change—but the country entered a period of uniform and increasingly attractive  currency.

Perhaps the most magnificent bills of the 19th century were the $1, $2 and $5 bills known as the “Educational Series” issued in 1896.  They represented history, science and electricity, respectively.  The $1 note is pictured above.

Early 20th-century currency was more workmanlike, sometimes resembling U.S. Savings Bonds. To save paper, bills were reduced to their current size in 1929.   The familiar portraits have remained the same since.   And, by the way, the $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and (yes) the $100,000 notes of the 1920s and 1930s have long been out of production!

Interestingly, one of the mainstays of our currency has been the paper delivered by Crane & Co. since  1879.  Surely this is one of the longest government-private business relationships on record.

U.S. currency has now entered a new phase, perhaps less appealing but more tamper proof.  Change has become frequent and more is likely.  Australia now has plastic notes; perhaps this or some other innovation is in our future.

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