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 $500 Star San Francisco Five Hundred Dollar Bill Frn Note Fr2201l✭* 2998lbHgr 1902 $100 Date Back ((memphis, Tn)) Appears UncirculatedHgr 1934 $1,000 Frn Low Serial# ((stunning Lime Seal)) High GradeHgr 1882 $10 Brown Back ((x-rare 6 Known + Finest Known)) Awesome Grade$2 1899 Silver Certificate Pmg Certified $500 1934 Frn Lgs Federal Reserve Note Awesome Eye Appeal Light Green SealHgr 1902 $20 Houston, Tx ((stunning)) Appears Gem Uncirculated$5 Bill Series 1899 Large Note Silver Certificate Chief- Rough ConditionHgr 1906 $20 Gold Certificate ((parker/burke)) Appears Near UncirculatedHgr 1899 $5 Indian Chief ((phenomenal)) Very High GradeHgr 1934 $100 Lime Seal Low#00009556 ((1of2 Consec#)) Pmg Choice Unc 64Hgr 1896 $5 Rare ((stunning Educational)) Pmg F-15(looks Solid Vf)Two Consecutive High Grade $1 Series 1918 Green Eagle Federal Reserve BanknotesHgr 1928 $50 Gold Certificate ((rare Grade)) Very High Grade1928 $50 Dollar Gold Certificate Note Bill Paper Money CurrencySeries 1891 Large $2 Silver Certificate The "windom" Bill 1934-a St Louis $500 Dollar Bill Five Hundred Light Green Seal - Unique Serial #Hgr 1886 $5 X-rare ((morgan Silver Dollar Back)) Super Grade1896 $2 Two Dollar Educational Silver Certificate $10 1901 Bison United States Note Very Nice Looking! No Reserve1882 $10 Nbn Brown Back 1st. Nat.bank Schuylkill,pa. Ch # 5216 Fine $1 1896 Silver Certificate Pmg Certified Large 1899 $5 Silver Certificate Chief One Papa Note - Pcgs Currency Fine 15$50 Large Size (series 1922) Gold Certificate - No Reserve***inverted Back Error*** $1 Silver Certificate - Fr1607 Series 1935 1914 $5 Frn Red Seal Chicago Fr-838b Extremely Fine,very Nice Note1917 $2 Legal Tender Note - Fr-60.pcgs-64ppq1929 $20 The First Nb What Cheer, Iowa Type 1 Pmg Vf30 Ch# 31921934 500 Dollar Bill New York B Ultra Rare 1913 $50 Gold Certificate Very Fine ConditionFr. 122m $10 1901 Legal Tender Note "bison" Speelman-white Choice Fine5 Dollars Silver Cerificate Indian Chief 18991907 $5 United States Note Fr-88 Gem Uncirculated ,very Nice NoteHgr 1934 $100 Lime Seal Low#00009557 ((2of2 Consec#)) Pmg Choice Unc 64Usa / Legal Tender, Fr#99 Allison / Gilfillan - $10, 1878. Pmg 64. Rare.Stunning $10 Overprint On Back Error 1985 Pmg 64 Epq Frn $1 Series 1899 Silver Certificate, Pcgs 58 Choice About New, No Reserve1918 $2 Frbn Battleship Key Kansas City Extra FineScarce 1928 $20 *gold Certificate* Pmg Au 50 - No Reserve!!!1899 $1 Silver Certificate Fr-226a Pcgs Choice New 63 Ppq Hgr 1950c $100 Kansas City ((only 3 Finer)) Pmg Gem 66epq(star)1923 $1 Silver Certificate Fr# 237 Pmg Gem Uncirculated 66 Epq1934 $1000 Dollar Bill, Amazing 1869 $10 Legal Tender "rainbow" Choice Crisp Uncirculated1914 Federal Reserve Note $10 Fr-930 Chicago.pmg-641899 5.00 Silver Certificate "the Chief" Choice/gem Uncirculated1899 $1 "black Eagle" Silver Certificate Fr# 230 Pmg Choice Uncirculated 64 Epq1914 $5 Federal Reserve Note - New York Fr# 851a Pmg Choice Unc 63 Epq$100 1966 Legal Tender Note Red Seal Pmg Certified 1928 $20 Gold Certificate Fr# 2402 Pmg About Uncirculated 55 EpqMismatched Serial Numbers 1957b $1 Silver Certificate Pcgs Gem New 65 Ppq 1934-a $500 Federal Reserve Note St. Louis Fine1869 $1 Legal Tender Rainbow Strong Very FineHgr 1914 $20 Frn ((type-a)) Appears Gem UncirculatedHgr 1907 $5 Woodchopper ((pcblic Error)) Appears Near UncirculatedLot Of 100 Pieces 1976 Federal Reserve Atlanta Ga $2 Consecutively Numbered Unc1934 $500 Fr Note Bill - ***chicago*** Cool Serial Number! Low Start No Reserve!Beautiful 1901 $10 Legal Tender "bison" Strong Very Fine1890 $1 Treasury Note Ornate Reverse Strong Extra Fine1907 $5 U.s. Legal Tender "woodchopper" Fr# 91 Pmg Choice Uncirculated 63 Epq