How the dollar has changed over the years

George Washington’s wife, Martha, appeared on the 1886 silver certificate. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

While some people are in favour of eliminating the $US1 bill, this common denomination has a fascinating history.

The dollar’s design has undergone some interesting alterations over the years – from the “funnybacks” that emerged in the 1920s to the web-printed bills of the 1990s.

Keep reading to learn how the buck has changed from the 19th century through the present.

It’s believed that, in 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued the first paper currency in America.

An illustration from the children’s book ‘Ruth of Boston: The Story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.’ Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

The capital was needed to finance the military during King William’s War, the North American arm of the War of the Grand Alliance (aka the Nine Years’ War).

As the first colony to mint its own money, Massachusetts had a reputation for innovations in currency.

Despite opposition from Great Britain, each of the 13 colonies had its own currency by the time of the American Revolution.

Colonial paper currency from the Colony of Rhode Island circa 1737. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

These notes were typically expressed in Spanish reales as well as in British shillings, pounds, and pence. The reason behind this was that colonial North American commerce was conducted with foreign coins, as few coins were minted in the colonies.

However, by 1763, the British deemed colonial currency illegal.

Noted polymath Benjamin Franklin began printing paper money as early as 1728 and proposed a universal paper currency in 1765.

An engraving of Benjamin Franklin circa 1750. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Franklin is known for his quotes about money, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and “The use of money is all the advantage there is in having it.”

He began printing paper money in 1728, first for New Jersey and then for Pennsylvania and Delaware.

It wasn’t until 1765 that Franklin proposed a universal paper currency. He was tasked, as a diplomat, with determining a way for the British to increase colonists’ taxes to fund the Seven Years’ War. His preliminary plan, modelled upon banking in Pennsylvania, dictated that the British would operate the colonial land bank – a system grounded in accruing interest from loans rather than generating revenue through additional taxes.

However, between retaliation against the Stamp Act – which introduced the first direct, internal tax on American colonists – and the Pennsylvania Assembly’s orders that Franklin stop the British from infringing upon colonial money-issuing privileges, he needed to enact a different strategy. His solution: legal tender that did not rely on commodities (i.e. gold and silver) that were controlled by Britain.

His face has adorned the 100 dollar bill since 1914 – a year after Congress passed the Federal Reserve act.

When the Continental Congress needed a way to finance the Revolutionary War in 1775, it began issuing notes called Continentals.

Continentals were not backed by gold or silver and could be easily counterfeited. crowntopcurrency/eBay

Just like today’s US currency, Continentals were singularly valued on purchasing power. With no backing in gold or silver, the notes could be easily counterfeited – so it didn’t take long for them to become devalued.

Another name for government-issued legal tender that is not backed by a physical commodity is fiat money.

Congress called for the regulation of coin currency in 1792, but didn’t make a specific reference to paper money. Thus, individual banks started issuing their own notes.

A $US1 bill issued by Northampton Bank in Allentown, Pennsylvania, circa 1841. Wikimedia Commons

Although Congress called for the creation of the first national mint in 1792, the Constitution only granted authority with respect to coins.

As outlined in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress could create and regulate coin currency – both foreign and domestic. But there’s no specific reference to paper money.

Therefore, private banks could issue paper currency that competed with government notes.

To finance the Civil War, Congress sanctioned the issuance of a national paper currency.

The US first widely issued paper money in 1861. National Museum of American History/Wikimedia Commons

In 1861, to finance the Civil War, Congress sanctioned the issuance of paper currency known as demand notes. The name referred to the fact that the currency, which was available in denominations of $US5, $US10, and $US20, could be redeemed in coin “on demand.”

Colloquially, demand notes were called greenbacks – a nickname for US currency that we still use today.

16th US President Abraham Lincoln issued the first $US1 bill in 1862 as a legal tender note (legal tender is a form of money approved by the government).

The first $US1 bill was issued in 1862 as a legal tender note. National Museum of American History/Wikimedia Commons

The large-format bill featured a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, who served as US Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War.

George Washington didn’t appear on the note until 1869.

A $US1 legal tender note from 1869. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Washington adorns the bill to this day.

By 1874, the blue and green colours on the front of the $US1 bill were removed.

A US $US1 bill circa 1880. National Museum of American History/Wikimedia Commons

The red floral design around the words “Washington, DC” was an 1880 addition.

George Washington’s wife, Martha, appeared on the 1886 silver certificate.

Martha Washington appeared on the 1886 $US1 silver certificate. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

Martha wasn’t the first woman to be depicted on federal paper currency. Between 1865 and 1869, Pocahontas appeared on the back of the $US20 bill. The image, which illustrates her baptism, is based on a painting that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda.

It has taken more than a century, but the Treasury Department announced in 2015 that women will again grace paper money. In 2020, abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $US20 bill, while opera singer Marian Anderson will appear on the back of the $US5 bill. Anderson, who performed at the Lincoln Memorial, is one of several people whose historic appearance at the landmark will be honored by the new $US5 note.

The $US1, $US2, and $US5 notes issued in 1896 are known among collectors for their artistic merit.

A US $US1 silver certificate circa 1896. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1890s, an era of increasing innovation and industrialisation, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing – the government agency responsible for the design of US currency – sanctioned an aesthetic upgrade for paper money.

Nicknamed the “Educational Series” thanks to the title that appears on the $US1 denomination (“History Instructing Youth”), these notes are distinguished by their illustrations. The images are based on paintings by the allegorical artists Edwin Blashfield, Will H. Low, and Walter Shirlaw.

Each note features a female personification of a different cultural value. While the lady on the $US1 bill symbolises History, the women on the $US2 and $US5 notes respectively represent Science and America herself.

After the Panic of 1907 — the first global financial crisis of the 20th century — President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.

A US $US1 bill circa 1917. collectiblewatches/eBay

Establishing the Federal Reserve System as the central bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve Act created 12 different Federal Reserve districts across the country in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

The goal of the system – which designated the Federal Reserve note as the new national currency – was to prevent banking panics and increase the use of the dollar worldwide.

The 1920s saw the introduction of the smaller-sized dollar bill that we know today. The change in proportion was likely to reduce production costs.

A $US1 ‘Series of 1928’ US silver certificate. tmartino1/eBay

Measuring 6.14 by 2.61 inches, the notes – whose smaller size was likely to reduce production costs – were characterised by a blue treasury seal on the front. With a reverse side that lacked symbolism or any official government emblem, they earned the nickname “funnyback” among collectors.

The Great Seal, with its recognisable pyramid and eagle motifs, was not added to the dollar bill until 1935 at the suggestion of Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary and eventual vice president.

1957 marked the addition of the “In God We Trust” motto on the the back of $US1 bill.

A $US1 US silver certificate circa 1957. chicagobillsandcoins2011/eBay

The motto first appeared on US coins during the Civil War to reflect a national increase in religious sentiment.

In 1963, the Treasury Department began issuing Federal Reserve notes in $US1 denominations.

A US $US1 bill from 1963. chicagobillsandcoins2011/eBay

Repealing the Silver Purchase Act of 1934, which allowed the US government to augment its monetary base by buying silver, Congress rendered $US1 silver certificates obsolete in 1963. The certificates were replaced with $US1 Federal Reserve notes, the paper currency Americans use to this day.

The design of the $US1 bill hasn’t changed much since.

US $US1 bills printed in 2013. shelly9501/eBay
In 2006, the US Department of Treasury estimated that around $US70 million worth of counterfeit bills were in circulation, though these numbers were based on annual seizure rates.

The Secret Service was founded in 1865 with the aim of reducing counterfeit money.

According to Dustin Johnston, director of currency at Heritage Auctions, consistency is key when it comes to anti-counterfeiting measures.

“The human brain is trained at recognising differences in facial features,” Johnston said, explaining that it’s easier for us to distinguish if something is off about a face – like George Washington’s portrait – rather than other details of an image.

Between 1991 and 1995, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing installed a web press — the type of press used to print newspapers.

A $US1 web-fed press note from 1995. niceones0123/eBay
The goal of the web-fed press was to prove that it could produce currency more quickly and cheaply than sheet-fed systems. Capable of printing both sides of a note in a single pass, it was able to generate 10,000 sheets in just 35 minutes.

With the sheet-fed system, it takes 72 hours for each side to be dried and cured.

Ultimately, the web press was retired after four years since it couldn’t handle sustained long printing runs, and the Bureau returned to the sheet-fed method.

Today, the $US1 note constitutes 45% of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s currency production.

The yearly currency order for the 2018 fiscal year includes 2.2 billion $US1 notes.

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