Collectors of U.S. paper money have a rich array of notes and certificates to choose from. Most people begin with the Colonial paper issued between 1690 in Massachusetts and 1788 in New York. Paul Revere engraved some of the Massachusetts Bay Colony notes — an image of a codfish graces one side of his bills.

Continental Congress notes were printed between 1775 and 1779 to underwrite the Revolutionary War. Continentals, as they are known, were produced by Hall & Sellers, who used the former press of none other than Benjamin Franklin to create the precursor to contemporary U.S. currency. The bearer was promised a set amount (four dollars was the most common denomination) in “Spanish milled dollars” (one Spanish dollar being equal to one “piece of eight”).

This promise assumed that enough taxes could be collected upon victory in 1781, which did not happen as the Founders had hoped. At one point, holders of Continentals were getting two and a half cents on the dollar for their paper. Collectors do much better today.

In the early part of the 19th century, currency was a hodgepodge. Bridge builders and railroad tycoons were routinely given banking privileges, and even the Ohio Mormons had their own currency, signed by church leader Joseph Smith.

The Civil War revived the government’s interest in paper money when the Confederate States of America issued notes in 1861. A $50 bill from Montgomery, Alabama depicts slaves hoeing cotton. Other cotton-themed Confederate notes show the Southern crop being loaded onto a steamboat. The U.S. government responded to the Confederate States’ show of financial force with seven and a half by three and a quarter inch Demand Notes that same year; U.S. Notes followed in 1862, and National Bank Notes in 1863. These are the original greenbacks, so called because of the hue on their non-face sides.

One of the many fallouts of the Civil War was the hoarding of coins. With so many coins out of circulation, the government introduced Postage Currency in 1862 and Fractional Currency in 1863. As its name suggests, Postage Currency was tiny, so an enterprising entrepreneur named John Gault customized a button machine to encase the fragile stamps in brass and clear mica.

The mica face let the bearer see the denomination of the stamp (5, 10, 25, or 50 cents). The brass back served as a vehicle for advertisements. Thus, pitches for Ayer’s Cathartic Pills and Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, which promised “to purify the blood,” lived in economic harmony with the stern images of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose portraits were on the face side of these early stamps...

Encased stamps are very rare, but Fractional Currency is more widely available and popular with beginning numismatists. In a famous case, one of President Lincoln’s Treasury Department employees, Spencer M. Clark, put his own bearded mug on a piece of Fractional Currency, prompting Congress to pass a law banning images of living persons on notes.

After the war, National Bank Note use spread widely. The size of the note shrunk to six and 1/8 by two and 5/8 inches in 1928, and by the end of the National Bank Note era in 1935, most of the 14,000 banks in the country had their own notes. People collect them for condition ('crisp uncirculated' is an almost perfect note; 'good' is not prized by serious collectors because they are usually dirty and may have holes or tears), but also for the personal connection they may have to a particular town or bank.

As with Stock Certificates, some currency collectors are drawn to the vignettes and engravings — Franklin experimenting with lightning; Pocahontas being baptized.

Concurrent with National Bank Notes, the government issued both Gold and Silver Certificates, which promised the bearer the note’s face value in either metal. The first Gold Certificates were issued on 1865 for transactions between banks; a general-circulation Gold Certificate came along in 1882. Gold Certificates were recalled as part of the Gold Reserve Act of 1933, and it wasn’t until 1964 that it was again legal for private citizens to own them. Silver certificates coincided with the surplus of silver in 1878 but they were discontinued in 1963.

Finally, even though just about every currency collector would like to find that rare bill whose serial number or other distinguishing feature is printed upside down, some bills were deliberately tweaked. For example, during World War II, special currency was issued to troops in North Africa so that if it was captured, the currency could be easily demonetized. Similarly, to protect the money supply in the event of a Japanese invasion of Hawaii, currency there was overprinted with the word “Hawaii” on it, front and back, to make to easy to remove the bills from the money supply in the event of the worst.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

American Currency Exhibit

American Currency Exhibit

This collection, from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, covers currency from 1690 through half a dozen era… [read review or visit site]

Bank Note Bank

Bank Note Bank

This world banknote and currency image-sharing database is notable for its breadth of contributors and content (abo… [read review or visit site]

Two Cent Revenue Stamped Paper

Two Cent Revenue Stamped Paper

Everything you'd ever want to know about revenue stamped paper (first authorized in 1862). This site features infor… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1934 $1,000 Federal Reserve NoteAwesome Rare Lgs 1928 $1000 Dollar Bill Frn St. Louis Note 500 Gold Coin 2154lbHgr 1862 $1 U.s.note ((1st U.s. $1 Note)) Super GradeSeries 1891 $1 Treasury Note Bruce Roberts Large Red Seal Pmg Choice 64 Unc L@@kHgr 1922 $50 Rare ((gold Certificate)) Awesome GradeHgr 1928 $1 Red Funny Back ((grade Rarity)) Gem UncirculatedUsa, National Currency, Bucyrus, Ohio - $5, 1882. Brown Back. Pmg 65epq. Rare.Hgr 1882 $10 Scarce Brown Back ((tremendous Artwork)) Awesome Grade$10 1901 Bison United States Note Nice Looking! No ReserveFr. 275 1899 $5 Silver Certificate Us Currency Paper Money Bill NoteUltra Rare 1875 1st Charter Boston Stunning Extra Fine Condition1934 A $500. Dollar Bill Large Denomination Us Federal Reserve Note1899 $5 Silver Certificate The "chief" In Crispy About Unc With Tear Fr. 2801896 $5 Silver Certificate Education Extra Fine ConditionRare 1934 $1000 Dollar Us Federal Reserve Kansas City Currency Note An5119jAsia Banking Corporation China $20 1918 Specimen, Rare. Pmg 66epq**amazing** 1899 $1 Silver Certificate, *black Eagle* Pmg 62 Epq, Fr 236Hgr 1928 $100 ***star***numerical#8 ((mega Rare)) High Grade*very Nice Lot Of (3) $10.00 Gold Certificates Series Of 1922 - Estate Fresh*Xf Au Fr.2201b 1934 $500 Dollar Bill Frn New York Note 100 1000 Gold 1928 2143lbHgr 1896 $1 Silver Cert ((educational)) Super Grade2 Original Benjamin Franklin Continental Currency Bills 1759 & 1776 No ReserveFr. 282 1923 $5 Five "porthole" Silver Certificate Pmg Choiice Uncirculated-64Unc Gem Margin St Louis 1928 500 Dollar Bill Frn Note 100 1000 Gold Fr2200 2130c1934a $1000 One Thousand Dollar Bill Currency Cash Note Pmg Ef 40 - No Reserve !1934 A $500. Dollar Bill Large Denomination Us Note1862 $1 Legal Tender Strong Very FineHgr 1935a $1 Hawaii ((scarcer P-c Block)) Pmg Gem Unc 66epqIncredible 1914 $5 Red Seal Federal Reserve Near Gem Uncirculated1974 $1 Frn Inverted Overprint Error Pcgs Gem New 66ppq1899 $2 Two Dollars Large Size Silver Certificate Currency Note Ch/au1899 $5 Silver Certificate Indian Chief Onepapa Pcgs Graded Very Fine 35Hgr 1934a $5 N.africa ((blue/yellow)) Pmg Choice Unc 64(looks Gem)1934 $1000 One Thousand Dollar Bill Currency Cash Note Pcgs Vf 35 - No Reserve !Flawless 1880 10.00 Legal Tender Superb Gem UncirculatedMega Rare 1918 $2 Frbn "battleship" Extra FineFr 2210-i 1928 $1000 One Thousand Frn Federal Reserve Note Minneapolis, Mn RareGorgeous 1896 $1 Silver Certificate Education Strong Very FinePmg - 50 Cent Third Issue Fractional CurrencyJc&c - Bc-26c 1937 $50 Canada , Bank Of Canada - Cu 64 By Pmg 1896 Educational $1 One Dollar Note Currency Silver Certificate Very Good Fr 1186 1906 $20 Gold Certificate! Extremely Fine Pmg 40 With Full Margins!Hgr 1934a $10 Hawaii ((rare Grade)) Ch - Gem UncirculatedRare Denomination Blank Back $10 Error Pcgs 64ppq Choice New 1977a Fr. 2024cSpectacular 1928 $20 Gold Certificate Superb Almost Unc1922 $10 Gold Certificate ~~ Crisp Almost Uncirculated ~~1928 $500 Redeemable In Gold Federal Reserve Note New YorkIncredible 1896 $2 Silver "education" Apparent Very Fine1899 $5 Silver Certificate Indian Chief, Fr.281 Speelman-whiteFr 1200 1922 $50 Gold Certificate! Very Fine Pmg 30! John Burke Back Plate #3$1400 In Face Value: $100 Series 1966 $100 Red Seals, 1928 $100 And A $1000 BillHgr 1963b $1 Barr Notes ((100 Bep Pack Consecutive)) Superb Gem UncirculatedFr. 302 1908 $10 Ten Dollars "tombstone" Silver Certificate Currency Note Pmg 20Scarce 1966 $100 Dollar Red Seal~ Bright & Crisp Very High Grade "no Reserve"Hgr 1907 $5 Woodchopper ((speelman/white)) Awesome Grade1918 $10 New York Federal Reserve Bank Note - No Reserve!Hgr 1963b $1 Barr Notes ((100 Bep Pack Consecutive)) Superb Gem UncirculatedFr 2210-kdgs 1928 $1000 Frn Federal Reserve Note Dallas, Tx Pmg Vf-25 Rare1985 $20 Frn Overprint On Back Error Pcgs Gem New 66ppqRare Mismatched Prefix $2 1976 Frn Pmg 64 Epq Error Exceptional Embossing Noted