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    

1928 $1000 Richmond Frn One Thousand Dollar Bill Stunning High Grade!$2 1896 Educational Silver Certificate Fr 247 Pmg Vf25 Extraordinary1934a $1000 One Thousand Dollar Bill Beautiful High Grade!1934 A $500 Dollar Bill Federal Reserve Note Five Hundred Dollars Chicago, Il1896 $2 Educational Silver Certificate Nice Mid/high Grade Very Pretty!Beautiful 1899 $5 "sioux Chief" Silver Cert Large Note Fr#280 Pmg Vf25 No Res 1934 $500 Five Hundred Dollar Bill Note Cash Money Pcgs Au 58 ** No Reserve ** 1934a $500 *philly District* Five Hundred Dollar Bill Frn Superb High Grade!1934a $500 Five Hundred Dollar Bill Note Cash Money Pcgs Ef 40 * No Reserve * Hgr 1928 $1,000 New York ((rare Issue)) High GradeHgr 1934a $500 San Francisco ((awesome $500)) Very High Grade1901 $10.00 Bison Legal Tender United States Note Very Good ConditionHgr 1886 $5 X-rare ((morgan Dollar Back)) Pcgs Fine-151934 A $500 U.s. Federal Reserve Bank Note Of Chicago Fr# 2202g Green Seal Mule1899 $5 Silver "chief" Fr-278 Teehee/burke Very Fine,pmg 301934 $1000 One Thousand Bill Note Pmg 551934a $500 Five Hundred Dollar Bill Frn Beautiful High Grade!1882 $20 Gold Certificate Garfield Fine Middle Note Only! Noreserve Bosco1901 $10 Legal Tender Bison Key Fr.115 Gem Almost Unc+Hgr 1928 $50 Scarce ((gold Certificate)) Super Grade1923 $5 Silver Certificate "porthole" Note Currency Paper MoneyFr#271: 1899 $5 "chief" Low 4-digit Serial Number!Hgr 1934 $500 Philadelphia ((stunning Lime Seal)) Awesome Grade1901 $10 Legal "bison" Fr-121 Elliot/white Very Fine,cga 25$10 1882 The National Bank Of Commerce Of Norfolk Cga 25 No Reserve$1 2003a New York Mismatch Error Pcgs 68ppq B71101011b/1111b Fancy SerialsFr. 2001-h $10 1928a Pmg Gem Unc 66 Epq St Louis Federal Reserve Note Hgr 1899 $5 Silver Cert ((indian Chief)) Awesome GradeImpeccable 1896 $1 Silver Certificate "education" Gem Uncirculated1914 $10 "red Seal" New York Fr. 893b Burke/mcadoo (pmg 40)1901 $10 Legal Tender."bison Note" Fr.#114.pmg-121899 Series Large $5 Five Dollar Indian Chief Silver Certificate Blue SealUltra Rare 1908 $10 Silver Certificate "tombstone" Gem Almost Uncirculated$20 1929 The National Bank Of Pensacola Fl Cga 69*opq No ReserveFr#269: 1896 $5 Ed Silver Certificate Great Opportunity For Beginner Collector1934a $500 Five Hundred Dollar Bill Note Cash Money Pcgs Au 50 ** No Reserve ****beautiful** Mid/grade $10 1901 "buffalo" ((((((((((look))))))))))))1907 $5 "woodchopper" Legal Tender Fr-91 Gem Unc,cga 66 OpqUltimate Gem 1914 $50 Federal Reserve Fully Uncirculated1935-e $1 Silver Certificates Original Pack Of 100 Choice Uncirculated Notes1923 $10 Ten Dollar Large Us Red Seal Note Paper MoneySeries 1922 $100 Fr. 1215 Gold Certificate High Grade! No ReserveFlawless 1869 50 Cent Lincoln Fractional Gem Uncirculated1914 $20 Frn Fr-979a White/mellon Superb Gem,cga 67 Opq1993 $1 Inverted 3rd Print, Type 2 - Spectacular Error *uncirculated*$1000 1934a Federal Reserve Note Atlanta - Pmg 25 Very FineFr-126a 1863 $20 Legal Tender Series 191934 $500 Federal Reserve NoteFull Color 1899 $2 Silver Certificate Near Uncirculated1899 $1 Black Eagle Fr-236 Speelman/white Superb Gem Unc,cga 67 Opq1934a $500 Five Hundred Dollar Bill Note Scarce Kc - Pcgs Ef 40 * No Reserve * Hgr 1880 $5 Bruce Roberts ((x-rare Issue)) Super Grade1899 $1 Black Eagle Fr-235 Elliot/white Superb Gem Unc,cga 67 Opq1934a Us $500 Bill Mckinley Federal Reserve Chicago Five Hundred Dollar GreenHgr 1934a $5 Hawaii ((rarely Offered Grade)) Pmg Choice Unc 63epq1899 $5 Silver Certificate, Pcgs Vf 20 Fr. 274, Indian Chief, Sharp Five Dollar1922 $10 Gold Certificate. Speelman-white. Vg/ag. Bottom Note Only! Noresrvbosco1934a $500 Fr-2202-l Frn Gem Unc,cga 66 Opq1880 $1 Legal Tender Fr-30 Gem Unc,cga 66 OpqKd F2200 1928 $500 Federal Reserve Note(new York "b") Low Serial# (5 Digits)*vf*

Recent News: US Paper Money

Source: Google News

Cross-border renminbi settlement system will be based in Shanghai
WantChinaTimes, September 27th

The projected system in Shanghai will meet cross-border renminbi needs for various purposes, including trade and investment, cross-border financial dealings, and multi-currency collection and payment. The CIPS will offer services including acting as a ...Read more

Interview with the Director of Exhibits & Archives at the Museum of American ...
Coin Update News, September 23rd

One of my favorite items in the currency collection is a Lansingburgh Museum penny, a one cent note issued in 1792 by a small library and museum in the town Lansingburgh in Rensselaer County, New York. I find the idea of museums issuing paper money ...Read more