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Large bills: America's No-Longer-Current Currency

Image result for $500 bill
The $500 bill: in circulation until 1969, but still legal tender!

Currently, the highest denominated piece of American currency that’s in circulation is the $100 bill.  The bill has gone through a couple of design changes in recent years, but it still has Benjamin Franklin on the front, and Independence Hall on the back.  This is as high as American currency has gone since 1969.  Before then, the United States used to issue larger bills.

The next highest denomination was the $500 bill, which featured President William McKinley’s portrait on the front.  (No bills over $100 had pictures on the back—just stylized printings of the denominations written out in words, festooned with curlicues and the like, like you see below.  Older bills of this size that predate the 1930s often did have pictures on the backs.)  These higher denominated bills were as follows:

$500 – Pres. William McKinley
$1000 – Pres. Grover Cleveland
$5000 – Pres. James Madison
$10,000 – Sec. of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase
$100,000 – Pres. Woodrow Wilson

These bills were more useful in the past because physical cash transactions were a lot more common in the past than they are today.  A lot of people didn’t trust banks following the Crash of 1929, and they felt better having something they could hold in their hands.  Since the US government recalled all gold coins in 1933, large bills were the next best thing.  Of course, people who horded cash in mattresses seldom had such large bills.  Large bills were used more for business transactions, or by people who had a lot of money to their name to begin with.  (My grandparents, who were not rich but were spooked by the Great Depression all the same, didn’t stash cash in a mattress, but they did so in the lining of an old coat they kept hidden in the attic.  “Stashing money in a mattress” is an expression that’s a bit obsolete these days, and didn’t necessarily mean your cash was actually hidden in a mattress.)

By 1969, the culture had changed to the point where businesses mostly did high-value transactions by check rather than by cash, so demand for larger bills had dropped off.  Plus the feeling was that organized crime had an easier time moving large amounts of money around anonymously if they could use cash, and the government wanted to discourage that.  The last large bills over $100 were printed in 1944, so by 1969, the supplies of these bills in good enough shape to circulate were low enough that the government just decided to recall them all.  Any bill over $100 that are deposited to a bank is turned over to the Treasury Department.  It’s not illegal to own or spend these bills, and a number of them are still in private hands.  They’re held by collectors these days, and seldom (if ever) spent anymore.

The $100,000 bill is illegal for private citizens to own, and always has been.  These bills were only ever used for internal business between the different Federal Reserve Banks, and even they don’t use them anymore.
Image result for $5000 bill
The now-obsolete $5,000 bill.
The $100,000 bill: legal, but not tender!


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