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History Of United States Currency: Small-Sized Notes

Since the United States government took over currency printing in 1861, the government has investigated ways to cut costs since paper currency didn’t last as long as coins did. But the seigniorage (the amount of profit the government makes over the face value of the coins or notes it produces) and the printed denominations made currency very profitable.    

In 1928 the United States began printing currency considerably smaller than the “horse blanket” notes published since 1861. The old Large Sized currency measured 3.125″ by 7.875″ in size. This size resembled notes printed in England, Germany, Canada, and other European countries. 

It was suggested that there could be significant cost savings in paper, ink, and production costs by reducing the size of the printed notes by a committee appointed by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. In 1927, this decision was approved, and in July 1929, these new notes were distributed to the members’ banks of the Federal Reserve system. The new notes were significantly smaller at 2.625″ tall by 6.125″ wide. This smaller currency and the number of bank failures in the country placed even greater pressure on gold and silver coinage.  

The crash of the Stock Market in 1929 sealed gold’s fate, and the public reluctantly began embracing these Small Sized notes as their only option. 

Legal Tender Notes

Legal Tender Notes was the first series printed in this new, smaller size. Legal Tender Notes were printed in $1, $2, $5, and $100 denominations. All these notes were printed with red Treasury Seals and red Serial Numbers. 

The 1928 One Dollar Legal Tender notes were known as “Funny Back” notes as the word “ONE” is emblazoned across the back of the note. They were like Monopoly game money or other ‘play money’ used in board games, hence the “funny Back” name. 

Only one issue was printed, and STAR notes of that very same issue. 

(1928 Legal Tender $1 STAR Note, graded Very Fine-30 – # 227299) 

The $2 Series depicts Thomas Jefferson on the front of the note and a view of Jefferson’s home, Monticello, on the back. It was printed in a 1928 series, as well as Series A through G. They were reissued in a 1953 series and also in  

Series 1953 A-B-C. Ten years later, in 1963, the notes were reissued in 1963 and 1963-A series. 

The $5 note depicts Abraham Lincoln on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. They were first printed in 1928 and then in 1928, series A through F. They were reissued in 1953 along with series A through C., like the $2 notes. They were again finally printed in 1963 and in series 1963-A. 

The last note in this series is the 1966 $100 Red Seal. It depicts Benjamin Franklin on the front and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on the back. These were issued in 1966, 1966-*, and 1966-A. 


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(1966 Legal Tender $100 Note, graded Extremely Fine – # 42340) 

Silver Certificates

Silver Certificates were exchangeable at Federal Reserve Banks and some local banks for silver granules, 90% silver coins, or a silver dollar. That exchangeability ended, however, on June 24, 1968. 

The first Small Size Silver Certificates were printed in 1928. The series included only $1.00 notes. These notes also depicted George Washington on the front of the note and had the Funny Back “ONE” on the back. These notes had a blue Treasury Seal with blue Serial numbers. In 1934, they also printed $5.00 notes bearing a portrait of Lincoln on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. They printed series 1934 and series 1934 -S through D. 

In 1933, a $10 denomination was printed with a portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the front and the Treasury Building on the back. They were printed in 3 series: 1933, 1933-STAR, and 1933-A. They were again printed in 1934, and multiple series of 1934-A through D. One final series was dated 1953, 1953-A, and 1953-B. 

The 1933 Series had the blue Treasury seal to the left and the word “TEN” to the right. Later series had the Treasury seal to the right and the numerals “10” to the left.

(1934 $10 Silver Certificate, Gem Uncirculated-66 EPQ – #101714) 

National Bank Notes

The National Bank Notes were the following notes to be printed and issued by National Banks in many states that had the approval of the Treasury Department to issue currency. These notes were issued from July 1929 until May 1935.  

These notes were printed with brown ink on the Treasury Department seal and the serial numbers. In addition, the banks were issued Charter Numbers that had to be printed on the notes themselves. 

 Type 1 notes have these Charter Numbers printed twice on the notes in brown ink. Type 2 notes have these Charter Numbers printed in brown twice on the notes and two additional times for a total of four times, twice now, also in black ink. 

The notes were printed in $5.00, $10.00, $20.00, $50.00, and $100.00 denominations. All these notes are dated as Series 1929. $5.00 notes bear a portrait of Lincoln, and the back has the Lincoln Memorial. $ 10.00 notes have Hamilton’s image, with the Treasury Building on the back; $ 20.00 notes display the picture of Andrew Jackson and the White House on the back, the $50.00 notes bear the portrait of US Grant and show the U. S. Capitol on the back, and the $100.00 bill has Benjamin Franklin on the front and Independence Hall on the back. 

(1929 $10.00 National Bank Note, the Chase National Bank, New York, NY, 
Type 1, Two black Charter Numbers.) 
(1929 $10.00 National Bank Note, the First National Bank, St. Paul, Minnesota, 
Type 2, Two black Charter Numbers and Two Brown ink Charter Numbers.) 

Federal Reserve Bank Note

Unlike the National Bank Notes, these Federal Reserve Bank Notes were issued for many of the Federal Reserve Bank Notes. Not all of the 12 had each of the denominations printed for them. Denominations printed were $5.00, $10.00, $20.00, $50.00, and $100.00. The notes were printed using identical portraits and back images as the Federal Reserve notes were. Instead of Charter Numbers, single letters for each Federal Reserve District were added.

(1929 $100 Federal Reserve Bank Note, from Minneapolis, MN – #89042.)

This is the current series of notes circulating today. We use these notes every day. They all have green Treasury seals and green serial numbers. The denominations are $1.00, $2.00, $5.00, $10.00, $20.00, $50.00, $100.00, $500.00, $1,000.00, $5,000.00, and $10,000.00 notes. 

The $1.00 notes were first printed, dated 1963. George Washington is on the front, and the word “ONE” is on the back. They have been issued whenever there is a change in the Secretary of the Treasury or the Treasurer of the United States. Numerous safety measures have yet to be added to the lowly $1.00 bill. But higher denomination bills have micro-printing, watermarks, and even security threads installed to deter counterfeiting. 

Bicentennial $2.00 bills were first printed in 1976. Thomas Jefferson has the portrait on the front, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence graces the back of the note. They were most recently updated in 2009.


Description automatically generated with medium confidence 

(1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note, Jefferson front, Signing of the Declaration back. #4155) 

$5.00 bills were first printed in 1928. There were numerous printings until 1995, when the notes were redesigned. The portrait of Lincoln was redesigned in 1999 and was enlarged to deter counterfeiting. 

(1999 $5.00 Federal Reserve Note, Re-designed portrait of Lincoln. #250615.) 

$10.00 notes were first printed in 1928. The front of the note portrays a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and the Treasury Building on the back. Beginning in 1999, the Hamilton and the Treasury Building pictures were redesigned. The paper now has an orange tinge that separates it from the other redesigned bills in the series. 

(1999 $10.00 Federal Reserve Star Note. Redesigned. #262418.) 

The $20.00 was also first printed in 1928. The front depicts a portrait of Andrew Jackson, and the back depicts the White House. It was first redesigned in 1996.  

In 2004, it was redesigned again, and now this denomination was printed on bluish paper with enhanced security measures.  

(1996 $20.00 Federal Reserve Note, Redesigned in 1996.) 
(2004 $20.00 Federal Reserve Note. Redesigned again and printed on bluish paper with eagle and denomination watermarks.)

The $50.00 Federal Reserve Note was first printed in 1928. It depicts Ulysses Grant on the front and the United States Capitol building on the back. There were numerous printings throughout the years until they were redesigned in 1996 with a giant portrait and again in 2004 when it was completely redesigned and printed on colored paper with an American flag watermark.  

(1996 $50.00 Federal Reserve Note, Redesigned.) 
(2004 $50.00 Federal Reserve Note, Front, and Back, redesigned and watermarked.) 

The $100.00 Federal Reserve Note was first printed in 1928. These were multiple printings through the years, and in 1996, the portrait of Benjamin Franklin was redesigned. In 2004, the design was again changed on both sides. The new note had watermarks and a security stripe, and microprinting all added, as this is the largest denomination still in circulation. 

(1996 $100.00 Federal Reserve Note, redesigned.) 
(2006 $100.00 Federal Reserve Note, wholly redesigned with enhanced security measures.) 

The $500.00 Federal Reserve Note was printed in 1928 and again in 1934. These notes circulated until the 1970s when the Federal Reserve destroyed a number, and no other pieces flowed into the banks. At that point, these notes began to bring premiums over face value in all grades. The front of the note has a portrait of William McKinley, while the back has the numerals for 500 surrounded by flourishes. They have not been reprinted or redesigned. As such, these notes are now highly collectible. The audience for these notes is not only US currency collectors, but bullion buyers are often enamored with these high denomination US currency notes that are no longer available. 

(1934 $500 Federal Reserve Note, Front & Back, VF-30, PMG # 152720) 

The $1,000.00 Federal Reserve Note is the most significant, easily affordable piece of United States currency anyone can buy. The average price is between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the issue and condition.  

The front of the note contains a portrait of Grover Cleveland, and the back has the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS” as the central vignette.  

(A 1934 $1,000.00 Federal Reserve Note, front and back.) 

The $5,000.00 Federal Reserve Note is, perhaps, the rarest of all the Federal Reserve Notes. It is the second highest denomination, behind the $10,000.00 Federal Reserve Note. But only 224 of these notes are known to exist. These $5,000 and $10,000 notes were recalled, but not all were turned in by the public. This note in any grade is costly. 

The front of the note has a portrait of James Madison, and the back has the numerals “5000” in a compass-like engraving. It is magnificent to see one of these notes available for sale. 


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(1934 $5,000 Federal Reserve Note, Graded Choice About New-58 PPQ, PCGS #197760)

The $10,000.00 Federal Reserve Note is the largest denomination note ever circulating. The only more significant denomination note is a $100,000.00 note used for transfers between banks and the Federal Reserve.  

The $10,000.00 note depicts Salmon P. Chase on the front of the note and the back of the note is dominated by the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS,” with the numerals “10,000” behind the wording. It is the second rarest note, behind the $5,000 note, as this larger denomination has 336 known examples. Extremely rare and valuable in any grade. 

(1934 $10,000 Federal Reserve Note, Front, Back, #103587.) 

Hawaiian Notes

During World War II, the US Government was concerned that the Japanese would invade Pearl Harbor. They believed that one thing the Japanese would do if they did raid the islands was to counterfeit US currency and flood Hawaii with counterfeit US notes.  

To prevent this, the US Government printed unique markings and a brown Treasury seal on US currency, making it harder for the Japanese to counterfeit this special US currency, which could be withdrawn at any time. 

The notes with special “Hawaiian over-printings” were:  

  • 1935-A $1 Silver Certificate 
  • 1934 and 1934-A $5 Federal Reserve Notes 
  • 1934 $10 Federal Reserve Notes 
  • 1934 and 1934-A $20 Federal Reserve Notes 
(1934-A $20 Hawaiian Emergency Note – AU50 #268237) 

North African Currency

As American troops during World War II went into North Africa to stop the Germans, the US Government printed special Silver Certificates to prevent the Germans from counterfeiting US currency. The US Government printed bills with yellow Treasury seals for use in North Africa, with strong US influence. These specially-printed bills could be withdrawn anytime and replaced with other US-unique currencies. This negated the German plan of weakening the US currency’s influence in certain areas by counterfeiting it and flooding the area with bad currency. 

The Notes used were: 

  • 1935-A $1.00 Silver Certificate 
  • 1934-A $5.00 Silver Certificates 
  • 1934 and 1934-A $10.00 Silver Certificates 
(1935-A $5.00 Silver Certificate, North Africa, Gem Unc -65 EPQ – #237802) 

Gold Certificates

Gold Certificates were printed to be redeemable for US gold coins. When President Franklin Roosevelt removed the United States from the Gold Standard in 1933, he also invalidated the ability to exchange these printed currency notes for gold coins. Part of the provision also recalled holding these certificates. In May 1964, the Secretary of the Treasury removed all restrictions from having and collecting these notes.

The small-size notes comprising Gold Certificates are: 

  • 1928 and 1928-A $10.00 Gold Certificates 
  • 1928 and 1928-A $20.00 Gold Certificates 
  • 1928 $50.00 Gold Certificates 
  • 1928 and 1934 $100.00 Gold Certificates 
  • 1928 $500.00 Gold Certificates 
  • 1928 and 1934 $1.000.00 Gold Certificate 

 Gold Certificates are also part of this series but are generally not collectible or available. The $100,000.00 denomination was intended for internal transfers and was not released publicly.  

  • 1928 $5,000.00 Gold Certificates – Extremely Rare 
  • 1928 $10,000.00 Gold Certificates – Extremely Rare 
  • 1934 $100,000.00 Gold Certificate – only 42,000 were printed and used as transfers between banks and between banks and the Federal Reserve System banks. 

This series had the typical portraits and back images the other series shared. 

(1928 $50.00 Gold Certificate, front and back, XF – #260529) 

These are all types of small-size notes from 1928 to date (2023). Changes are expected to be made to ensure these notes’ security in the world marketplace. Additional restrictions on the amount and portability of these notes are expected.  

But the viability of the United States currency continuing to be the world’s reserve currency and accepted worldwide is one of the priorities of this and future administrations.  

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