Large denominations of United States currency greater than $100 were circulated by the United States Treasury until 1969. Since then, U.S. dollar banknotes have only been issued in only seven denominations: $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. But in the 1920’s the United States Treasury issued bills ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 denominations.
Featured on some of these bills were William McKinley ($500), Grover Cleveland ($1,000), James Madison ($5,000), and Salmon P. Chase ($10,000). Salmon P. Chase might not be as familiar as those of the presidents featured on the other big bills, but once upon a time Chase was huge in American politics. Chase, a mid-19th century politician, served as Chief Justice of the United States, spent stints as Ohio’s governor and senator, and was Lincoln’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
When the federal government started issuing greenback notes in 1861, Chase, as Secretary of the Treasury, was in charge of designing and popularizing the new currency. Although putting his face in everyone’s pocketbooks never propelled Chase to the presidency, when the Treasury started issuing the new $10,000 bills in 1928 they put Chase’s portrait on the obverse to honor the man who helped introduce modern banknotes. Even if you don’t have a $10,000 bill Chase’s name might still be in your wallet. Chase National Bank, the forerunner to Chase Manhattan Bank, was named in his honor.
It may be hard to imagine when such a large denomination of bills would come in handy especially in our modern day when we mainly handle cash electronically. Matthew Wittmann, an assistant curator at the American Numismatic Society, explains this by stating that, back then, it was only worth a fraction of that value. “[the] $1,000 note seems incredible, but what it reflects is actually how little paper dollars were valued,” Wittmann said. “It might only have been worth $20 in ‘real’ hard money at the time.”
Lee Ohanian, an economics professor at the University of California, also explains that the larger bills were mostly used to rapidly purchase supplies like ammunition during the war. In the decades after the war, large denomination currencies were mostly used in real estate deals or inter-bank transfers. “They facilitated really, really large financial transactions that primarily were being carried out between banks or other financial intermediaries,” Ohanian said. Before sophisticated wire transfer systems were fully developed, it was simply easier and safer just to fork over a $5,000 bill to settle up with a fellow bank. Once transfer technology became safer and more secure, there really wasn’t much need for the big bills anymore.
Although the high bill denominations are still technically legal tender in the United States, they were last printed on December 27, 1945, and officially discontinued on July 14, 1969, by the Federal Reserve System, due to ‘lack of use’. The $5,000 and $10,000 had effectively disappeared well before then.
The Federal Reserve began taking high-denomination currency out of circulation (destroying large bills received by banks) in 1969. As of May 30, 2009, only 336 $10,000 bills were known to exist; 342 remaining $5,000 bills; and 165,372 remaining $1,000 bills. Due to their rarity, collectors often pay considerably more than the face value of the bills to acquire them. Some are in museums in other parts of the world.
There was often concerns about counterfeiting and the use of cash in unlawful activities such as the illegal drug trade and money laundering, it is unlikely that the U.S. government will reissue large denomination currency in the near future, despite the amount of inflation that has occurred since 1969 (a $100 bill is now worth less, in real terms, than a $20 bill was worth in 1969). According to the U.S. Department of Treasury website, “The present denominations of our currency in production are $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. The purpose of the United States currency system is to serve the needs of the public and these denominations meet that goal. Neither the Department of the Treasury nor the Federal Reserve System has any plans to change the denominations in use today.”
The chance of bringing back large bills is only likely if there are big problems within the economy. The circulation of large denominations of currency is almost always due to inflation or depreciation. Countries like Zimbabwe have issued million-, billion- and trillion-dollar notes. One $100 trillion note from the southern African country is worth 40 U.S. cents. Or take a step back to Germany in the early ’20s, known then as the Weimar Republic, when hyperinflation hit the country. That’s when 4.2 trillion marks were equivalent to a dollar.
Experts also say they think modern technology renders large bills unnecessary. Credit cards, checks, any form of electronic transfer — these all pretty much fulfill large transactional needs more efficiently than a tangible note could. “If you didn’t have your credit card, you didn’t have your debit card, or there’s a massive meltdown of the world in telecommunication systems and computers … then you can imagine high-denomination bills would be very useful,” Ohanian said. “Assuming the other person wants to accept it.”