The History of U.S. Currency

By tracing our currency back to the colonial era, we can explore how American history has helped shape the way we design, issue, and process modern U.S. banknotes.

Periods of Influence

The following centuries proved to be pivotal for the development of our nation's currency. Explore the timeline for an in-depth look.

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Colonial Notes

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.

Image: Smithsonian National Museum of American History by Leonard H. Finn, Usage Conditions Apply (


Franklin's Unique Colonial Notes

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.

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Independence and Strength


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.

Image: National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


Continental Currency

The phrase “not worth a Continental” is coined after the Continental Congress issues paper currency to finance the Revolutionary War, currency that quickly loses its value because of a lack of solid backing and the rise of counterfeiting.

Image: University of Notre Dame, Public Domain


The First $2 Note


The first $2 notes are Continentals and are nine days older than America. On June 25, 1775, the Continental Congress authorizes issuance of the $2 denominations in “bills of credit” for the defense of America.

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Adoption of the Dollar Sign


The United States officially adopts the dollar sign in 1785. The symbol evolves from the Spanish American figure for pesos. From colonial to modern times, the United States has issued several types of banknotes with unique purposes, like paying taxes, earning interest on an investment, or buying goods.

Image: Jesper Zedlitz, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


The Bank of United States

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.

Image: , CEP Website


The Mint Act

On April 2nd, 1792, Congress establishes the coinage system of the United States by passing “The Mint Act.” The U.S. adopts the decimal system for currency.

Image: U.S. Government, Public Domain