United States High Denomination Bills

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.



Salmon P. Chase

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.”



A $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Depicting Grover Cleveland

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.


A $5,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1928,  Depicting James Madison

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 Obverse of the 2009 Zimbabwe $100 trillion banknote

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.”

The United States Treasury Seal

A seal is a device for making an impression in wax, clay, paper, or some other medium, including an embossment on paper. The original purpose was to authenticate a document, a wrapper for one such as a modern envelope, or the cover of a container or package holding valuables or other objects.

There is a direct line of descent from the seals used in the ancient world, to those used in medieval and post-medieval Europe, and so to those used in legal contexts in the western world to the present day. Seals were historically most often impressed in sealing wax.


Two-sided pendent seals from Inchaffray Abbey in Scotland, late 13th century

Wax seals were being used on a fairly regular basis by most western royal chanceries by about the end of the 10th century. In England, few wax seals have survived of earlier date than the Norman Conquest, although some earlier matrices are known, recovered from archaeological contexts: the earliest is a gold double-sided matrix found near Postwick, Norfolk, and dated to the late 7th century; the next oldest is a mid-9th-century matrix of a Bishop Ethilwald. The practice of sealing in wax gradually moved down the social hierarchy from monarchs and bishops to great magnates, to petty knights by the end of the 12th century, and to ordinary freemen by the middle of the 13th century. They also came to be used by a variety of corporate bodies, including cathedral chapters, municipalities, monasteries etc., to validate the acts executed in their name.

Traditional wax seals continue to be used on certain high-status and ceremonial documents, but in the 20th century they were gradually superseded in many other contexts by inked or dry embossed seals and by rubber stamps.

While many instruments formerly required seals for validity (e.g. deeds or covenants) it is now unusual in most countries in the west for private citizens to use seals. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, as in East Asia, a signature alone is considered insufficient to authenticate a document of any kind in business, and all managers, as well as many book-keepers and other employees, have personal seals, normally just containing text, with their name and their position. These are applied to all letters, invoices issued, and similar documents.

In 1778, the Second Continental Congress named John Witherspoon, Gouverneur Morris and Richard Henry Lee to design seals for the Treasury and the Navy. The committee


Francis Hopkinson

reported on a design for the Navy the following year, but there is no record of a report about a seal for the Treasury.

The actual creator of the U.S. Treasury seal was Francis Hopkinson, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and also contributed to the design of the Great Seal of the United States. He is known to have later submitted bills to the Congress in 1780 seeking payment for his design of flags, currency, and several seals, including one for the Board of Treasury. The earliest known usage of the seal was in 1782. When the United States Government was established in 1789, the new Department of the Treasury continued to use the existing seal.

Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_(1789-1968)In addition to the elements still found on the current seal, the original featured more ornamentation and the Latin inscription THESAUR. AMER. SEPTENT. SIGIL. around the rim. The inscription is an abbreviation for the phrase Thesauri Americae Septentrionalis Sigillum, which translates to “The Seal of the Treasury of North America”. The reason for the original wording that embraced all of North America is unknown, although interestingly the first national bank—chartered in 1781 to help solidify the nation’s finances—was named the Bank of North America.

Around 1800 the watchdog seal was sometimes used as the Treasury Seal. Its origin is aWatchdogOfTheTreasury1800Seal matter of speculation, as is the extent of its use at the time. It has long disappeared from Treasury documents, but the original plate of the seal is on deposit at the United States Government Printing Office.

The seal contains a symbolic strongbox, with the Scales of Justice on top. Lying beside the strongbox is a capable looking watchdog, with his left front paw securely clasping a large key. The seal bears the lettering “U.S. Treasury”, and is bordered by a wreath. The scales and the key are also incorporated on the official seal.

The United States Mint did in fact own a real watchdog named Nero, who was originally purchased in 1793 for $3 and accompanied the night watchman on his rounds. Treasury documents record further expenditures for Nero and successor watchdogs over the following twenty-five years, and currently Sherman. According to department legend, Nero is the canine depicted on the seal, and may have been the origin (or at least the inspiration) of the term “Watchdog of the Treasury”.

After nearly 200 years, Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler approved a new, simplified version of the seal on January 29, 1968. The Latin inscription was replaced by the English THE DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, and 1789 was added at the bottom.

The Treasury seal has been printed on virtually all U.S. federally-issued paper currency, starting with the Legal Tender Notes (United States Notes) in 1862 and continuing today. The only exceptions were the Demand Notes of 1861 (the original “greenbacks”) and the first three issues of fractional (less than a dollar) notes in the 1860s; in both cases the authorizing laws did not require the seal.

Initially the U.S. Government had no means to produce bills on its own, so the first paper bills were printed by private firms and then sent to the Treasury Department for final processing. Along with trimming and separating the bills, this processing included the overprinting of the seal onto the notes (even today, the serial number and seal are overprinted on the notes after the face has been printed). This was the beginning of what was later known as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. In July 1869, the Bureau began to print notes on its own.

For several decades, the color and style of the printed seal varied greatly from issue to issue (and even within the same issue). The basic seal was the same, but the circumferences were embellished with lathework decoration such as scallops, beading, or spikes. Among the colors used for the seal during this period were red, blue, and brown.

USDeptOfTreasurySeal-2003Bill (1)The usage of the seal was standardized starting on the smaller-sized notes of Series 1928. The seal was printed with a toothed outer edge, and other than the color was the same across all styles of currency. Federal Reserve Notes were issued with a green seal, silver certificates with a blue seal, gold certificates with an orange seal, United States Notes with a red seal, and National Bank Notes and Federal Reserve Bank Notes with brown seals.

During World War II, special versions of Federal Reserve Notes and Silver Certificates were printed with the word HAWAII on each end, and circulated only in Hawaii between 1942 and 1944. The seal and serial numbers were brown to further distinguish them from regular notes. In the event that Hawaii was captured by enemy forces, the special notes could be declared worthless. Similarly, special Silver Certificates were issued for use by American troops during the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. These notes had a distinctive yellow treasury seal, which would again allow them to be declared worthless if large amounts fell into enemy hands.

$10HawaiiFront (1)

In Series 1950, the general design of all Federal Reserve Notes was changed slightly, and a smaller seal was used. The 1968 version of the Treasury Seal had first been used on the $100 United States Note in Series 1966, and was later introduced on all Federal Reserve Notes starting with Series 1969.

The seal design by Francis Hopkinson has long since been apart of American history. It represents the United States Treasury and gives legitimacy to our currency. From the Kings and Queens of Medieval Europe to our current government, seals have been a vital part in authenticating documents.

The Face on the Bill


Have you ever wondered why the United States has that law prohibiting the use of a living person’s face on currency or stamps? Well, mostly it happened because of one man who just couldn’t resist the sight of his own face.
us-encased_postage-0-01.jpgIn 1866, the United States was in the middle of a coin shortage. Several things had been tried to alleviate the shortfall, but none were particularly successful. At one point, postage stamps had been used as money. The Treasury also began issuing fractional currency to prevent citizens from hoarding silver coins. And this is where things got interesting.





Spencer M. Clark

Spencer M. Clark, the Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was not a popular man. In 1864, he came under investigation from the House of Representatives when Representative James R. Brooks denounced the Treasury as “a house for orgies and bacchanals.” Charges of harassment, hiring women for their appearance, and attempting to pay female employees for “trysts” were all laid against Clark, though the subsequent investigating body decided the claims were part of a “conspiracy” and were dropped. Congress, however, was not eager for more scandal from Clark.
frontWhen the third run of a five-cent note was approved, Congress asked that it feature the portrait of William Clark, the famed explorer. But apparently, the official documentation that was sent to the Treasury only mentioned that “Clark” should appear on the note. Spencer Clark saw his opportunity and ran with it, giving the order that his own face appear on the note. (There is another version of the story, in which Clark put the portrait of the treasurer of the United States on the 50-cent note, without bothering to ask him first. Fortunately, the Treasurer was pleased, and asked whose portrait was to be on the 5-cent note. The story goes that Clark said, “How would the likeness of Clark do?” The Treasurer, thinking the Clark in question was Freeman Clarke, Comptroller of the Currency, agreed.)
Congress was not amused.




Russell Thayer

Russell Thayer, a congressman from Pennsylvania, amended an appropriations bill to include the line, “hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.” When speaking before Congress to advocate for amendment, Thayer said: “I hold in my hand a five-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes … I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…It is derogatory to the dignity and the self-respect of the nation. I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”
back.jpgClark kept his head, fortunately, but very nearly lost his job, only keeping it because of the personal intervention of the Treasury Secretary. Congress passed the Thayer Amendment on April 7, 1866, and followed it up with a law in May of the same year prohibiting bills for fractional currency less than 10 cents, which finally resulted in the cessation of printing for Clark’s notes.

The Ladies Who Were Liberty

For much of America’s history, our coins featured Lady Liberty rather than any historic figure. Liberty has changed over the centuries, and many women have been models for the ideal: who are the women who are the face of Lady Liberty?

The Draped Bust Liberty: Ann Willing Bingham

draped_bust_se_half_dollarThe Draped Bust coin obverse design, in use from 1795 to 1807, was designed by Mint engraver Robert Scot to replace the Flowing Hair design, which was almost unanimously disliked. Though it cannot be conclusively proved, it is likely that Ann Willing Bingham, a socialite and considered one of the most lovely women of her day, was the inspiration for the Liberty on this coin. She was the subject of many portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, who created the image that Scot used for his engraving of Liberty on the Draped Bust coins.


Ann Bingham was a regular correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, as well as other luminaries of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams wrote about her, “[Mrs. Bingham is] the finest lady I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance, or rather, I ought to say, its animation, the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners, convert you into admiration.” She often hosted members of the Federalist Party, including Alexander Hamilton, for informal debates at her house. She has sometimes been credited with convincing Thomas Jefferson on the necessity for the Bill of Rights. She died in at the age of 37 in 1801 after contracting a serious illness after the birth of her third child.

The Morgan Dollar Liberty: Anna Willess Williams

800px-1879S_Morgan_Dollar_NGC_MS67plus_Obverse.pngWhen Congress passed the Bland-Allison act, the Treasury began buying silver to mint into new coins, resulting in the need for a new silver dollar design to be stamped onto the newly-minted silver dollars. George Morgan, newly appointed to the Philadelphia Mint in 1876, begin taking intensive art classes; in 1877, he began work on the designs for the new coins. Morgan’s friend, artist Thomas Eakins, encouraged him to use Anna Willess Williams, an art student from Philadelphia, as a model. Morgan considered her profile to be flawless, and was struck by her “crowning glory” of golden hair.

Anna_Willess_Williams_1892.jpgThough she had been guaranteed anonymity, Anna Williams’ identity as the “Silver Dollar Girl” was outed by a reporter in 1879. She was flooded with letters and visitors, to her great distress. She was offered a role on stage that could have made her a great deal of money, but rejected it in favor of a teaching position. She later took a job as a teacher of kindergarten philosophy at $60 a month. When it became known that she was engaged in 1896, interest in Anna Williams was revived. However, the marriage never took place, and Anna preferred to spend her time talking about her role as the supervisor of kindergarten schools in Philadelphia. She suffered a bad fall in December of 1925, and died of a stroke the following April at the age of 68.

The Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty: Elsie Stevens


The Walking Liberty design is considered one of the most beautiful designs among American coins. Created by sculptor Adolph Weinman, a German immigrant to the United States, the Walking Liberty may have been inspired by the “Sower” design on French coins. It is thought that the face of Liberty was modeled on Elsie Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens.


Weinmann had earlier based his design for the Liberty on the Mercury dime on a bust he had sculpted of Elsie; the Stevens’ had rented an apartment from Weinmann from 1909 to 1916. (There is some evidence that silent film star Audrey Munson may have been the model instead, but most solid evidence points to Elsie.) Weinmann asked the young housewife to model for him, pinning her hair up under a winged cap that he said represented “freedom of thought.” The bust has been lost to history, though photographs of it remain.

The Peace Dollar Liberty: Teresa De Francisci

NNC-US-1921-1$-Peace_dollar.jpgDuring WWI, the German propaganda machine tried to spread the idea that the British government did not have enough silver to back all of their paper money in circulation, especially in India. The plan worked: the hoarding of precious metals caused silver prices to rise, increasing the cost of the British war effort. When the British turned to the United States to purchase silver, the government authorized the sale. This, however, resulted in a need for more silver US coins to be struck, and a new design was needed. Numismatists promoted the creation of a design celebrating peace following the war, and the idea caught on. 34-year-old Italian immigrant Anthony de Francisci produced a design that was unanimously selected for the coin; his wife, Teresa, was the inspiration for the Liberty on the obverse of the coin, though other elements were incorporated and stylized. De Francisci stated, “ I opened a window of my studio and let the wind blow on her hair while she was posing for me,” remarking later in 1922 that “the Liberty is not a photograph of Mrs. de Francisci. It is a composite face and in that way typifies something of America.”

teresadefrancisciTeresa de Francisci was born south of Naples, Italy, and came to America as a young child. Young Teresa was struck by the sight of the Statute of Liberty as their steamer ship approached Ellis Island, and often tried to imitate the pose as she grew up. She wrote in a letter to her brother, “You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony’s design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.” She was the first Italian-American to graduate from her high school. After the death of her husband in 1964, she was a frequent guest as numismatic events; on the 50th anniversary of the Peace dollar, she was presented with a plaque which read, “To a Lady of Peace.”

She passed away in Manhattan on October 20, 1990, 26 years to the day after the death of her husband.

When Mail Delivery Was A Series of Tubes


The line associated with the United States Postal Service is well known: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But what happens when those legendary couriers are replaced by a vast interconnected system of tubes?


Pneumatic-tube-mail.pngIt’s mostly been forgotten, but mail was delivered via pneumatic tubes in some urban areas beginning in the 1890’s. Congestion in city streets, with the mixing of cars and horse-drawn carriages, often delayed mail delivery; underground tubes could deliver letters quickly and efficiently. The pneumatic tube canisters, similar to the ones still used in modern banks, could hold up to 600 letters, and sped under city streets at about 35 miles per hour. In 1893, these mail tubes were installed in Philadelphia, with Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and New York City following soon after, with over 56 miles of pneumatic tubing in total.


This service was put on hold during World War I, and only restored in New York and Boston after the war. By the middle of the 20th century, the increase in mail volume as well as the explosive growth of urban areas had made the pneumatic delivery system impractical as well as expensive, and it was phased out.



Several European cities used pneumatic mail delivery systems as well; such a system was in limited use in Prague until 2002, and was only closed at that time due to flooding. Berlin, Munich, and Paris all had pneumatic mail delivery, and Italy actually issued stamps specifically for the service; 23 pneumatic mail stamps were issued in Italy between the years of 1913 and 1966. (You can see excellent pictures of the stamps here.)




The most definitive pneumatic mail system in the United States was, unsurprisingly, the one in New York City. The pipes were buried about 6 feet below the city streets, and the workers who operated the tubes were known as “Rocketeers.” In its heyday, the system handled 30% of New York City mail, about 95,000 letters daily.


Pneumatic-tube-mail-apparatus.pngHowever, the temptation to send non-traditional items through the tubes proved too much for some. When the tube mail system had its grand opening in 1897, the Rocketeers sent a Bible wrapped in a flag, as well as a copy of the Constitution. They also sent a cat. Yes, that’s right, a live cat (the cat was fine, if a little disorientated.) In one documented instance, a sick cat was sent via pneumatic tube to a veterinarian. Kenneth Stuart, in an article titled “Pneumatic Mail Tubes and Operation of Automatic Railroads,” writes that “other animals that were reportedly shot through the underground tubes included dogs, mice, roosters, guinea pigs, and monkeys. And also: fish. At a 1908 demonstration convened to celebrate the opening of a new tube line from New York’s Broad Street Station, postal workers loaded a tube canister with ‘a glass globe containing water and live goldfish.’ To prove, basically, that they could. And they could. The makeshift tank, luckily for its inhabitants, was sent through the tubes without incidence.”


11237633933_8c65cc51e0_h.jpgMichelle Young, writing for the Untapped Cities blog, notes that “In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).”


Today, very few remnants of any of these systems can be seen, save for the pneumatic tubes in parts of Prague and the series of Italian pneumatic mail stamps. The reliability and flexibility of automobiles and human mail carriers won out over the shiny new pneumatic technology.


The Bryan Dollar: When Silver Was a Major Election-Year Concern



Election years always stir up high emotions and strong opinions. Sometimes, the issues are perennial: the role of the press, how involved our country should be in international affairs, and other weighty matters. Other issues may be important during the year of the election, but fade from public view shortly afterward. An excellent example of the second type is the imbalance of value between silver and gold dollars; it’s not even a blip on the political landscape now, but it was a major plank in the Democratic party platform in 1896. This issue left its mark in a token known as the Bryan Dollar, named for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who supported the “Free Silver” position.



The late 19th century saw an imbalance in its precious metal dollar coins: both silver and gold coins had face value of a single dollar, but the gold in the dollar coin was worth nearly twice as much as the silver in the silver coin. The Bryan Dollars were created to illustrate this issue.



s-l1600 (2).jpgThese items (not truly coins, but also not tokens) are much larger than a standard silver dollar of the time, and illustrated how large a silver dollar would need to be to equal the value of the gold in a gold dollar coin. Several varieties exist, but all serve the same purpose: to inform the public about the perceived lack of silver in America’s silver coinage.



The Bryan dollars were struck by silversmiths on the East Coast during the election years of 1896 and 1900. According to So-CalledDollars.com, “They were more dignified in tone than many contemporary pieces issued for the same purpose, as latter usually were struck in base metal and were most satirical of Bryan and his cause. These silver medals showed comparative size and ratio of a dollar struck at the then-current price of silver with what it would be like if free coinage were to rule. They are much more than mere political pieces as they bore direct reference to the silver controversy and, hence, to our national coinage.”



Some of these coins feature shapes on the reverse of the coin, like a small circle or a wagon wheel, to indicate the size of a standard government dollar coin in comparison to the size of a coin needed to equal the metal value of the gold dollar.



1896GOP.JPGOther coins were soon struck to mimic and satirize the Bryan dollars, as well as the Free Silver position. Ronald Fern writes, “With respect to Satirical Bryan Money, Farran Zerbe states: ‘The Satirical class comprises those pieces of numerous variety in size material with derisive or humorous inscription or design. Most all are casts; a few were struck. Type metal, or some composition of lead and aluminum were the most commonly generally used materials, with iron, copper, tin and cardboard contributing a few varieties’. Thousands of such oversized coins were issued to ridicule the so-called Free Silver doctrine. Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan and his supporters advocated the free coinage of silver and a new, bi-metal monetary standard in which silver was valued at a ratio of 16:1 to gold.”




Though the “Free Silver” system had many impassioned advocates, the country was already on a path to the credit system, and silver didn’t have enough time to challenge the existing single-metal gold standard. Bryan lost the election all three times he ran for the office of President.

Little Coins on the Prairie



laura_ingalls_wilder_cropped_sepia2One of the most formative book series for American children has been the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in the 1930’s and 40’s, these books chronicle Laura’s childhood and teenage years as her family traveled across the midwest during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. Though Laura made significant changes to her story at the urging of her publisher, the books are predominantly autobiographical. (Those wishing to know the story as it was originally written should read the recently-released book, Pioneer Girl.) Between the ages of 2 and 9, Laura and her family had lived in 5 locations: Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin again, and Minnesota. (The second stint in Wisconsin was the inspiration for Little House in the Big Woods, though it is the first in the series. According to Wilder biographer William Anderson, her publisher did not believe that she could have such vivid memories of her life at age 3, and insisted the timeline be changed and Laura’s age increased. The fictional and historical timelines merge at By the Shores of Silver Lake.)


Caroline_and_Charles_Ingalls_sepia_cropped.jpgCharles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was a restless man who moved the family often, usually to areas on the edge of a frontier, before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura’s parents and blind sister Mary remained there for the rest of their lives, and it was in De Smet that Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder, the farmer boy from her book of the same title. The couple spent their early married years in De Smet before moving to Minnesota and then Florida, eventually settling in Mansfield, Missouri, at Rocky Ridge Farm. It was at Rocky Ridge, in a house built for them by their daughter Rose (a popular author in her own right), that Laura finally sat down and wrote her story.


With the stability of coin denominations and designs in the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s easy to forget how different the coinage of the 19th century was. (President Theodore Roosevelt was a notorious critic of contemporary American coinage, writing in 1904 that “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.”



Carson City Mint

The coins that Laura Ingalls would have seen during her childhood are very different from the coins we use today. Most of the coins Laura saw were likely created at the Philadelphia Mint (1792-present), though the Denver and San Francisco Mints also produced coinage. Though Mint facilities at Charlotte, NC, and Dahlonega, GA, were in operation shortly before Laura’s childhood, both only minted gold coins and were unlikely to produce anything the hardscrabble family would have owned, and both were shut down in 1861 after the Civil War. The New Orleans Mint (1838-1961, 1879-1909) would not come back into operations until Laura was twelve years old; when she was 3, the new Mint in Carson City began operations, producing predominantly silver coins from the rich local mines.


By the time she was 7, in 1874, Laura and her family were living on the banks of Plum Creek just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Charles Ingalls was the town butcher and served as the Justice of the Peace. With the family living closer to an established town, it is likely that Laura, Mary, and the other children would have seen more contemporary coins than they had grown up with.

Lower-denomination coins would have been the most common; these included the Indian Head cent, the shield 2-cent and star 3-cent (both discontinued in 1873), bust 3-cent, and shield 5-cent coins. The two-cent shield design coin was the first to bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” but was only produced for ten years.



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One of the more common designs of the time, the Seated Liberty, appeared on half-dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins. More valuable coins would have included the coronet head gold coins in $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations, as well as the gold dollar coins. The silver trade dollar came into use in 1873, but as those were minted in the western mints and almost all of the coins used for overseas trade, it is unlikely that any of them would have been in circulation in a small Minnesota town.



NationalCashRegister.jpgIn 1870’s Minnesota, even a small coin had substantial buying power. The book Minnesota As It Is In 1870 records some of the costs of basic items: “Beef, by the quarter, costs 7 and 8 cts.; steaks and roasts, 15 to 18; pork, 81/2 to 10; steaks, 18 to 20; mutton, 15 to 20; hams, 20 to 25; venison, 8 cts., by the quantity; steaks, 18; chickens, 121/2 to 15; turkeys, 15 to 18; fish, 5 to 15; lard, 20 to 25; flour, $5 per parrel (sic); meal, 4 cts; buckwheat flour, $1.50 per sack; butter, 25 to 30 cts.; cheese, 20; eggs, 35 per dozen; potatoes, $1 per bushel; ruta bagas, 35 cts.; onions, 75 cts.; beans, $1.45 to $2.50; cranberries, $1.75 to $2.50; sugar, 14 to 16 cts. per lb.; coffee, 22 to 28; tea, 90 cts. to $1.80; woo, $6 to $7.50 per cord. Rents, $3 to $15 per month for cottages; $15 to $50 for larger houses. Board, $1 to $3 per day; $4 to $6 per week, day board; $4 to $10, board and lodging; lower in smaller towns […] Wages.–Carpenters, $2 to $3; masons, $3.50 to $4.50; painters, $2 to $3; laborers, $1.50 to $2; and by the month, $20 to $25, on farms; $35 to $60, on boats and in the pineries; servants, $8 to $15; clerks, $500 to $1800; teachers, $300 to $1500.” [Note: the last two salaries appear to be listed by year rather than day or hour.] These numbers are for St. Paul, and items were probably slightly cheaper in Walnut Grove.


1933-littlehouseontheprairieNot many purchases are recorded in Laura’s books, but she does mention a few significant ones. On the Straight Dope forum, user Choie offers a list of purchase amounts mentioned in the Little House books:

“A meal in a railroad hotel costs $0.25 (On the Shores of Silver Lake.) Also in LTotP [Little Town on the Prairie], Laura later earns $1.50 a week as a seamstress, with hours from 7AM – 6PM, and a half-hour for mealtime. Pa says of this workday, ‘That’s fair. You get off an hour early but have to bring your own meal.’ (User Lissla Lissar corrects this in a subsequent post: “In LTotP, Laura makes ‘$.25 a day plus dinner’, which is $1.25 a week.”) For her first teaching stint, Laura earns $25 (+ bed/board) for two months’ work. Later, as a more experienced teacher, she earns about $75 for teaching school for 3 months (These Happy Golden Years). In THGY, a parlour organ costs the Ingalls $100, $40 of which is Laura’s.”


Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have defined an optimistic vision of America for generations of children and adults. Her experiences with life on the frontier, from coins to bears to one-room schoolhouses, are a reminder of our history and our commitment to progress.


How Coins Betrayed Bonnie and Clyde

The Barrow Gang, led by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, stormed across multiple states in a deadly crime spree lasting a year and a half. The gang killed both civilians and law officers when cornered or threatened, and escaped capture multiple times. Despite their formidable skill at evading (or simply mowing down) the law, the beginning of the end for the notorious Barrow Gang came from a stash of coins.


800px-Bonnieclyde_f.jpgClyde Barrow had his first arrest in 1926, at the age of 17, after failing to return a rental car on time; he was arrested again shortly afterward, with his brother Buck, for possession of stolen turkeys. Though he held legal jobs from 1927-29, Clyde also robbed stores, stole vehicles, and even cracked safes. After several incarcerations, he was sentenced to Eastham Prison Farm in the spring of 1930. He suffered terrible abuse in the prison (much of it from other inmates), and emerged as a hardened criminal with a grudge against law enforcement and the prison system. Ralph Fults, incarcerated at the prison farm with Clyde, reported that he changed “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake” during the 2 years he was at the farm.




Bonnie Parker married Roy Thornton at the age of 15, but soon grew estranged from her husband (though they never legally divorced.) She met Clyde Barrow at the house of a friend (according to the more credible reports), and the two fell in love at first sight. When Clyde rounded up friends and family to create his gang, Bonnie stayed by his side.



Bonnie_apuntant_de_broma_a_Clyde_amb_una_escopeta.jpgThe numbers and members of the Barrow gang fluctuated, though Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche were frequently part of the group. They robbed over a dozen banks, as well as small stores and rural gas stations; they killed 9 police officers and several civilians, as well as the occasional kidnapping. Despite a great deal of public popularity, the ruthlessness of the Barrow Gang soon turned public opinion against them. A set of photos from their hideout in Joplin, Missouri, (many taken by Bonnie, who had a lifelong interest in photography) which fell into police hands after a raid, portrayed the Barrow gang as laughing criminals, brandishing guns and smoking cigars. These photos were almost certainly taken in jest (as well as poor taste); the reality of the gang’s life on the road was far less picturesque.




These photos, embellished by a press desperate for the next sensational crime story, ended up cementing Bonnie Parker’s image as a hardened gun moll and the power behind the throne; Bonnie Parker never killed anyone, though she did fire a Browning Automatic and was present for over 100 felonies. As the gang become more notorious, it became harder to find accommodation, forcing them to sleep in campground and bath in cold streams.



On June 10th, 1933, Clyde missed a warning sign at a Texas bridge and rolled the car into a ravine. Bonnie sustained a severe leg injury (sources agree it was a third-degree burn, but whether it was from a gasoline fire or battery acid has not been determined.) This made it harder than ever for the group to hide; Bonnie had to hop on her good leg or be carried, and was in constant need of medical supplies.
BlancheCapturedExfield1933.jpgThe beginning of the end came in July of 1933, at the Red Crown Tourist Court, in Platte City (now part of Kansas City), Missouri. The owner of the hotel was already suspicious when he saw the Barrow car being backed into the garage “gangster style,” for faster getaway. However, it was when Blanche Barrow paid for lodgings, five dinners, and five beers entirely in coins that he became certain he was dealing with robbers. He informed local law officials, which led to a shootout that mortally wounded Buck and resulted in Blanche Barrow’s arrest.


Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree came to an end a few months later in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, when they were caught in an ambush of questionable legality, gunned down by a hail of gunfire from law enforcement.



31121-021Though history does not record which coins Blanche Barrow paid with, we do know what coins would have been in wide circulation at the time. The Lincoln wheat cent (minted in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco) and Buffalo nickel (minted in Philadelphia and San Francisco) were common, as well as the Mercury dime (minted in Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco).



The Standing Liberty quarter was minted primarily in Philadelphia until 1930, with a few quarters coming out of Denver and San Francisco; it was replaced by the Washington quarter in 1932 (minted at all three locations.) The Walking Liberty half-dollar would also have been in circulation.



NNC-US-1907-G$10-Indian_Head_(no_motto).jpgThe gang might also have used the $10 Indian head coin, and the famous $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle coin, possibly acquired during their bank robberies. Morgan and Peace dollars might also have formed part of the haul, though not minted during those years; some Indian Head cents and Barber coins would also likely still have been in circulation and part of the stolen money.


CaptureAt least two coins were recovered from the legendary couple’s car. A 1921 Morgan dollar, one of two said to have been taken from Clyde Barrow’s jacket pocket, sold for $32,400 in 2012. The coin was taken from the couple’s car by Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton, who was one of the gunman during the ambush; Hinton’s son wrote a letter to accompany the Morgan, detailing the recovery of the coins. “Nothing has ever been mentioned, written, or published about Clyde’s jacket being in the car right after the melee that morning. Only Ted and the other five posse members were aware of the jacket … I was later made aware of the jacket.” Hinton sold the coins in 1946 to a Dallas buyer, who later traded the coin to settle a debt with the notorious Gambino mob family. According to Coin World, “This provenance is detailed in a letter from Michael Kozlin. Kozlin reportedly received the coin in 1986 from his grandfather, Armand Castellano, a convicted bank robbery get-away-car driver and a cousin to Paulie Castellano. Armand had reportedly received the coin in 1966. Within the last year, according to RR Auction President Bobby Livingston, Kozlin contacted Linton Hinton, ‘who confirmed the details of the origin of the coin from Barrow’s jacket pocket.’ “


What Are Ancient Aliens Doing on This Silver Bar?

A fascinating numismatic item came into our offices the other day: a small bar of .999 fine silver from the Tennessee Silver Coin Exchange, dated 1974. That in itself is not so unusual, but the front of the bar is what holds real interest. The left side of the design shows an astronaut standing on the surface of the moon, holding an American flag. On the right is a drawing from a cave in Tassili N’Ajjer in the Algerian Sahara, depicting a bulbous-headed humanoid form wearing a shapeless suit. The inscription on the coin reads, “Moon, 1969 A.D. Sahara 4000 B.C. Astronauts of Two Ages.”



©Sven Teschke via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons License

As odd as this item may seem at first, it begins to make sense in historical context. In 1968, a Swiss hotelier named Erich von Däniken published a book titled, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. In his book (which later turned out to be plagiarized in many sections from other, less known works; Von Daniken also admitted to fabricating evidence), von Daniken muses on the possibility that aliens may have visited human beings in ancient times, and that ancient architecture and art held clues to these meetings. Although the idea was not new (blogger and researcher Jason Colavito traces the modern “ancient astronaut” concept back to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft), it became wildly popular. A filmed version of von Daniken’s book, renamed “In Search of Ancient Aliens” and narrated by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, gave way to its own TV series. Von Daniken went on to publish over two dozen books on the same theme, and continues to appear on shows like “Ancient Aliens,” though his popularity has waned several times over the decades.



The_Sirius_Mystery,_first_edition.jpgIn 1976, Robert K. G. Temple published The Sirius Mystery, which claimed that aliens from the system surrounding the star Sirius had visited earth and made contact with ancient peoples, significantly impacting their culture. The evidence in the book later turned out to be severely faulty, but it only added to the ancient alien craze when it was first released. Temple came to believe that the ancient site of Tiwanaku, an ancient structure in western Bolivia, could be dated to 15,000 B.C.E., while archaeological experts believe the site to be no older than 1500 B.C.E. Undeterred, Temple continues to promote ancient alien theories.


bar2.jpgThe 1970’s were the high point of the initial ancient aliens craze, so the existence of an “ancient astronaut” silver bar from 1973 should be no surprise. In fact, on researching this piece, several more silver bars with similar themes were discovered, all from the early 1970’s. This particular bar is one of 1500 minted by the World Wide Mint for the Tennessee Silver Coin Exchange, Inc.


Coin collecting for beginners: resources


We’ve written a lot of information about coin collecting over the years, and now it’s all in one handy place.




The Basics of Collecting



The Language of the Coin Collector: Obverse? Reeding? Strike? What’s up with all the technical talk? Get a quick overview here.



How To Know What Your Coin Is Worth: This is one of the most common questions in coin collecting circles online. It’s difficult to give a precise estimate without seeing a coin in person, but here are some ways to improve your chances of getting accurate information.




5 Crucial Things to Do If You Think You’ve Found A Valuable Coin: You’ve found something unusual in your change, or in a box of coins, or while out metal detecting. It might be worth something. Make sure your find keeps as much of its value as possible. Here’s what to do.



Coin Storage for Beginners: As you’re putting your collection together, you will need to think about how to store your coins. Some methods are better than others, and some can actually damage your coins. Read this to learn how to decide which storage system is best for you.


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Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design: American coins have gone through many designs over the centuries, and all are of some interest to collectors. Read up about coin design here.



Who Designed the Faces on Your Pocket Change: Have you ever thought about the tiny portraits on your coins? An artist had to design each one, working from older portraits, sculptures, and photographs. Here are the stories of the designers of currently-circulating coins.




What Were the First Coins: Coins have been used for millennia to increase trade and make commerce easier. Read about the history of coins here.



The Top 5 Most Expensive Coins in the World: While many coins are affordable to the majority of collectors, a few go for truly astronomical prices. Here are the top five.



Exonumia: It looks like a coin, but it isn’t a coin–what is it? It’s called “exonumia.” This can include tokens, medal, pressed coins, and more. Read about some of the more popular kinds of exonumia here. 





Specific Coins


The Lincoln Wheat Cent: One of the most collected coins in the world, the Lincoln Wheat Cent was first issued in 1909 to mass appeal. Get the history of the coin here.




The 1943 Steel Cent: due to copper shortages during World War II, the Mint issued a steel cent in 1943. Found out how the new penny was received here. 



All About Buffalo Nickels: Buffalo nickels were the five-cent coin issued from 1913 to 1938, and got their nickname from the buffalo design on the reverse of the coin. Read the history of one of America’s most iconic coins here.




The Design of Morgan Silver Dollars: Morgan dollars are one of the most-collected American coins. Learn how the coin was designed and why it is prized by collectors.



The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle: Considered one of the most beautiful coins in the world, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is a highly collectible coin. Find out why.




Barber Coinage, or the Coin Contest Fail: The country’s first coin design contest was widely considered a massive failure, though it did result in one of the most collected coins in the country. Read about the contest and the coin here.



Collecting Pressed Coins: Though pressed coins do not carry the prestige of regular coinage, they are an inexpensive way to begin coin collecting for many people (as well as a valid object of collection in their own right), and an excellent way to interest children in collecting, as well. Get the basics of pressed coin collecting here.




Unusual Coins




All About Half Dimes: Before the creation of the nickel, five-cent coins were half dimes. Read up about this obsolete denomination here. 




The 1913 V Nickel: One of the rarest coins in the world, it’s also an oddity since the wording on the coin itself left some doubt as to how much it was worth. Get the full story here. 




The 1787 Brasher Doubloon: Have you ever wanted to strike your own coins? Here’s the story of one man who did



All About the 1804 Silver Dollar: For one thing, it was never minted in 1804; for another, only 15 of them are known to exist. To get the rest, read about it here.




The Sacajawea Mule Error: This coin was struck with the obverse design of a Washington quarter, and the reverse from a Sacajawea dollar. So, is it worth $0.25, or $1? Find out here.