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A Brief History of U.S. Currency

2 minute read
Frances Romero

Benjamin Franklin just got a face-lift. And it’s about time. Over the past seven years, the Treasury Department has redesigned the $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills, citing counterfeiting concerns. On April 21, the $100 bill caught up with its pals when the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) unveiled its latest greenback. The $100 bill is the highest-denomination note in circulation and can weather more than seven years of use. A humble $1 bill lasts only 21 months.

The American Revolution’s continental currency — the first attempt at national tender — did not have the same kind of longevity. So much of the money was produced to fund the war that it quickly depreciated. In 1863, Congress authorized the issuance of paper tender, much of which was easy to counterfeit. It is estimated that one-third of money circulating at the time was fake. But that didn’t stop the government from producing more of it. By the time the BEP was officially established in 1874, the Treasury Department had been creating currency for more than a decade — with dozens of clerks manually cutting and signing bills before the process was automated.

(See 10 things you didn’t know about money.)

The U.S. Mint started producing coins in 1792. The first piece of money to feature a President’s likeness was a coin: the Abraham Lincoln penny, created in 1909. And despite the fact that it costs 1.6¢ to make each 1¢ coin, more pennies are produced than any other U.S. denomination. Short-lived bills such as the $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 had no such luck, though, and the $100,000 note was printed but never released.

With hundreds of billions of dollars in circulation at any given time (more than $330 billion was produced last year alone), updating security features on currency is a continual process. “In God We Trust,” sure. In humans, not so much.

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