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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1900s

1913

Federal Reserve Act

The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 establishes the Federal Reserve as the nation’s central bank and provides for a national banking system that is more responsive to the fluctuating financial needs of the country. The Federal Reserve Board issues new currency called Federal Reserve notes.

Image: , Public Domain

1914

The First $10 Federal Reserve Notes

$10

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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

1918

$1,000 Federal Reserve Notes

The Federal Reserve Board issues $1,000 notes featuring Alexander Hamilton’s portrait. This bill is discontinued in 1969.

Image: CEP image collection

1918

$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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

1918

Introduction of "Large Denomination Banknotes"

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

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

1928

$10 bill with Automobile

$10

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.

Image: CEP Image Collection

1928

Serial Numbers on Banknotes

The United States adds unique serial numbers to banknotes.

Image: CEP Image Collection, CEP Website

1929

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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

1935

Great Seal of the United States

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

$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.

Image: CEP Image Collection

1935

Victor Lustig

Victor Lustig is arrested for using a “money-making machine” to produce counterfeit currency.

Image: American Numistmatic Society, US Secret Service

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.

Image: American Numistmatic Society, US Secret Service, http://numismatics.org/know-your-money-educating-the-public-about-counterfeit-money/

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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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.

Image: Banknote World, Public Domain

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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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.


1963

Currency and Gold

Congress prohibits the redemption of currency for gold.

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1963

The First ATM

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

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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.

Image: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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.

Image: The Federal Reserve Bank of San Franciso, Public Domain

1976

Reintroduction of the $2 Note

$2

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."

Image: CEP image collection

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.

Image: Office of the U.S. Treasurer, Public Domain

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.

Image: CEP website

1990

Western Currency Facility

The BEP’s Western Currency Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, begins producing currency. It is the first government facility outside Washington, D.C., to print Federal Reserve notes.


1996

Currency Redesign

$5, $10, $20, $100

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.

Image: CEP website