U.S. used to have awesome money

On the 1896 five dollar bill, "the entire obverse was covered with artwork representing electricity." The $2 bill offered an image representing science, with youth gracing the $1.


  1. The late 1800’s through the early 1900’s represented the golden-age of the engraver’s art. This sort of beauty was commonplace on all sorts of documents. Nice find!

    1. I’ve got some old bonds and stock certificates from that period. They are really beautiful. All of the scrollwork and the fanciful images make them much more interesting than what is produced today. Too much reliance on computers to make fast images and not enough love put into the work. No one can argue that a true printing engraver did not love his profession.

  2. Oh, my! You can’t show porn on money! What about the children!!!

    LOL. That bill is a thing of beauty, but it’d never be approved today. Not with tits showings.

    1. There were probably quite a few farmboys who spent quality time in the outhouse with their first $5.

    2. The first editions of the Standing Liberty quarter featured full frontal nudity, but the prudes of the day had her covered up by 1917.

  3. I particularly like the maonumentally over-the-top typeface used on this bill.  The HTMl 5 logo in the upper right is pretty great too.

  4. It’d be nice to revive the hyperstylized Educational Series notes for a new generation. How about a $20 with the heads of Jobs and Ritchie, with the obverse featuring a beautiful intaglio rendering of stock photography of people pointing at computers? 

    1. Why Jobs? Put someone on who actually influenced computers, not someone that ripped off other engineers and marketed his theft really well. Maybe some of the scientists from PARC or DEC or Intel?

      1. Everyone ripped off someone. Newton flat out admitted it with his “shoulders of giants” reference.

  5. Dude! Me like.

    The thing about this thing offending WASP sensibilities is that I had to wonder how many people ever saw a $5 bill in 1896.  I must be the equivalent of what? $1,000 2011 USD?

  6. That’s awesome.

    I love the way the little bumps on the top and bottom of the letters make it look like the ‘S’s in ‘UNITED STATES’ are dollar signs. If I can tenuously claim that engraving was the pixel art of its day, then that’s one seriously l33t bank note. =D

    1. (To clarify, when I say ‘pixel art’, I mean the overblown, manually-intensive hand-edited art of the 16-bit demo era, not 8-bit computer games graphics).

  7. This is a Silver Certificate.  Not really actual money like the $5 bill you are thinking of – more like something they printed for the contemporary equivalent of today’s Tea Baggers trying to conduct commerce amongst themselves with little pieces of silver because paper money represents big gov’t, and The Man.

    1. Um.  You’re being sarcastic, right?   ‘Cause said certificates most certainly were Real Money.  Printed by the Gummint and all. 

      1. Yes, silver certificates were “real money”, but they were printed especially to pander to conspiracy theorists who distrusted paper money, so the comparison to teabaggers is actually fairly accurate. Of course it’s a bit confusing because the “Free Silver” movement was Democratic, but that was when the parties were kind of reversed from today.

  8. This is way too over-the-top neo-classicism-on-steroids for my taste. Sure it may be appropriate for a banknote, but I’m not sure I’d call this awesome or beautiful. What’s wrong with a plain piece of paper with a $ written on it in the centre?

    1. Er, maybe a plain piece of paper with a $ written on it would be too easy to counterfeit?

      I would call these both awesome, beautiful, and technically excellent- requiring more than average skill to re-create. Also, boooooobz.

  9. The United States still has engravers produce the plates by hand. It remains a labour-intensive process in order to produce one-of-a-kind plates, and so there are no CAD files to abscond with to readily produce counterfeits.
    They do design with CAD, however.

  10. Last year, I discovered a wad of old bills (mostly $10s and $20s) amongst several sets of coins in the safety deposit box.  My step-grandfather, a coin collector who died in 1975, had saved them with the rest of the collection; when my grandmother died in 2000, they went to me.  I had never gone through them before, and they were all pretty cool.

    In any event, since I’m not a collector myself, I took the coins and bills to a local rare coin dealer.  After looking through the bills, he handed them back to me: “Treat yourself to a nice dinner,” he said.

    “What do you mean?” I asked.  “I can still use these?”

    “Yup,” he replied.  He explained that America is one of the only countries (if not the only country) in which paper money doesn’t expire.  It doesn’t matter if the bill was printed in 1929, as were several of these.  If it says $20 on its face, it’s worth $20 — no matter what.

    So I took my antique $10 and $20 bills to the bank to deposit them in my Roth IRA.  (My step-grandfather was an accountant; he would’ve appreciated that.)  The teller had to get his manager, who had to get on the phone with corporate, but, after about 20 minutes, I walked out with a deposit slip.  It was a fascinating learning experience.

    And, yes: I kept one of each bill.

    1. IT would have been nice if your step-grandfather had purchased the silver equivalent of those bills back when they were honored and left you with US Minted Silver Coins instead of the paper currency (I believe the exchange rate was 1 US Silver Dollar for 1 Troy Ounce of 99.99% Silver). 

      Then you could sell the silver and make 30x the face value of those old bills he left you. 

      Does any else find it fascinating those bills say “Five Silver Dollars”  “Two Silver Dollars” “One Silver Dollar”

      Now days they say “Federal Reserve Note” and it takes 30 of them to buy 1 troy ounce of silver. 

      I find that fascinating. 

  11. You are probably kidding, but I think it would be totally awesome if they designed a series of notes with contemporary American figures.  We have this stagnation of only venerating long dead figures that have had enough time to mythologize a little and the typical firefighter/EMS, soldier, police veneration is also a little stale.  Specific people who have done great things might be slightly more inspiring.

  12. So, the US didn’t leave the gold standard until 1971. In 1896, ALL money was backed by precious metals. I don’t understand the part about conspiracy theorists distrusting paper money.

    1. The US didn’t go *on* the gold standard (officially) until 1900, although it was moving in that direction after 1873. The silver agitators led by William Jennings Bryan were against the gold standard because they wanted an inflationary monetary policy based on silver. The silver certificates were to appease Bryan’s supporters — they weren’t the normal money of the time, although they were equivalent.

      There was a famous speech by Bryan “You shall not crucify Mankind on a cross of gold”. As you might note by that metaphor, Bryan was kind of…religious. He is probably better known today as the key Creationist witness at the Scopes Monkey Trial.

      1. Actually, the rallying point for the populist movement was a bi-metallic standard (gold and silver, rather than gold alone), because they argued that gold backing was too unstable. (In modern terms, they wanted to diversify the backing to reduce the severity of fluctuations.) They also championed a federal income tax, which they got. The comparison to the Occupy movement is probably more apt than the Tea Party.

        Now, of course, we don’t use either, because there’s just not enough specie to back something as large as the value of the U.S. economy. Insomuch as the economy can be covered, it’s because the value of the metal has been highly distorted by tight regulation; if the government fails, then the now-unregulated specie’s value falls as well, and there was no point in using it in the first place.

    2. It goes back to the era of the Napoleanic Wars. During the second bout of war with France, gold was available at a premium from English banks. Even if you had deposited gold guineas, they would only return gold to you at a premium.

      Money without a backing commodity is known as a fiat currency, that is a currency created at the will of the government. It is essentially worth less than the paper it is printed on.

      For another reason when paper currency is is such bad regard are the many tales of the post-WW1 Germans carrying suitcases filled with paper money to buy food. Somalia is currently in about the same position as the German economy post WWI.

      Somalian money changer:

      1. Money is money, whether it is a physical thing like a coin, or an abstract concept such as the ones and zeroes the bank keeps track of on your behalf.  In fact, the whole idea of money is abstract.  Perhaps that’s why the teatards have a hard time wrapping their tiny little brains around the fact that as long as a nation keeps control of how much money is out there, it doesn’t matter if it’s backed by gold or baseball cards or just the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government, which is still worth something in spite of their misguided attempts to undermine it.

        So the question I have for you is, why do you hate America so?

        1. Hate America? How on earth did you ever come up with that twisted idea? I spent many years in uniform going where I was told and doing what was asked.

          I’m very much a supporter of my country. Unfortunately, my country is in the possession of a pile of self-serving elected trash that should be sucking sea water at the bottom of the ocean.

          Full faith and credit. Amazing.

    3. Put it this way: pre-1965 US coins were 90% silver.  At today’s silver prices a quarter from 1964 contains around $5.50 worth of silver.  If you had put $10 worth of quarters and a $10 bill in a safe deposit box back then, the $10 bill would still be worth… Ten dollars.  The silver quarters?  $550.  Ten dollars in 1964 bought hell of a lot more than $10 in 2011, so the paper money has severely decreased in value while the coins increased quite nicely.

      That’s the part about “conspiracy theorists distrusting paper money” right there.

  13. The back side of the current(ish?) $2 is still a nice big view of geezers signing the Declaration of Independence. If you desperately need one, go to Crazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor to get hooked up with $2 bills or Kennedy half dollar coins.

  14. I’m surprised that some people here think that paper money that can be infinitely diluted to fund killing civilians in foreign countries is “real money.” The U.S. Dollar was created by the constitution and defined by the Coinage Act of 1792 as 371 grains of Silver. This standard was used by all Americans for a long time, not just “tea-bagger equivalents.”

      1. I think (without certainty) that the reason the world uses a fiat currency right now is because we set up a delegation system whereby the US set its currency against gold, and everyone else set theirs against the US.  Then the US switched to a fiat system, taking the rest of the world with it.

        Support: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_currency

    1. The original version of the Constitution also defined a certain group of people as only counting as three-fifths of a person, yet that rule no longer apples. Times change. Economies change.

      The old silver/gold standards are a thing of the past. The only ones who wish to bring them back are the moneyed interests who possess large portions of the wealth and their loyal – but totally misinformed – supporters who believe that fiat currency is hurting them. Tying our monetary policy / economy to a commodity that has no real value beyond its historic appeal and use in electronics is a recipe for disaster that would make the economic downturn of the last decade look like the Roaring 20s.

      If you want to see breadlines and soup kitchens spring up like daisies, then support a gold standard.

  15. this really makes me ache for a time in our government when things like science where openly deemed our most important values. I doubt if this would ever occur now, we’d most likely find things like god and patriotism on our current monies if we had themes like this, not that these are not worthy values its just a different more conservative outlook…

    1. I doubt if this would ever occur now, we’d most likely find things like god and patriotism on our current monies if we had themes like this

      What would be wrong with the Raptor Jesus $10 bill?

      1. I’d really like to see a lovingly intricate engraving of the FSM. Maybe they could bring back the $2 bill just for the occasion?

        1. $2 bill is still around – my crazy aunt gives them to us as birthday money. It’s actually one of the better old designs of the lower denominations. 

          1. The reverse design of the current $2 bill isn’t all that old. It was created for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. My great uncle was actually one of the engravers.

            The previous design, which was produced from 1929-1966, had an engraving of Jefferson’s Monticello home.

  16. In modern parlance, “Real Money” is directly convertible to precious metal.  Good luck finding any of that in North America!  “Fiat Money” is what we’ve had since the 1930s, when the US government made it illegal for private citizens to hold more than $100 in gold rather than banknotes.  You can thank Ron Paul for popularizing the real/fiat dichotomy, I guess.

    Despite what others have posted here, not all old US paper money will be honored today – gold certificates and Hawaii occupation money, for example, are no longer legal tender.

  17. When I was traveling in Poland in the early 90s, I was impressed by their money. They were still using the notes from the communist era. One side had Chopin, the other had peasants with machine guns.  An other note had Kopernicus.
    When I was there, 60$ would get you over a million zloty.

  18. Good heavens!  Madam centered on that first $5 is supposed to be the personification of electricity!?

    What a marvelous time to have lived, when physical sciences could be readily presented as voluptuous.

    1. What a marvellous time… if you were in the 10% who actually knew what the heck that lady was supposed to represent. If you were in the other 90%, though, good luck: no education, no social security, no cheap food, no cheap medicines, no cheap housing, lots of casual and/or organized crime, very little help from authority… more or less like today, only worse.

    1. According to Wikipedia (take grain of salt before continuing) “redemption in silver ceased on June 24, 1968. In the 1970s, large numbers of the remaining silver dollars in the mint vaults were sold to the collecting public for collector value.

    2. Silver is trading today at around $29, so that 5 silver dollar would have bought you the equivalent of 5 * 29 = $145 today.

      According to this online inflation calculator $5 in 1896 was the equivalent of $129.27 in 2010, so you’d have almost the same amount of money if you kept it as cash in any savings account that kept pace with inflation and quite a bit more if it was in a savings bond. Plus it might actually contribute to the overall economy instead of collecting dust in a private vault for 115 years.

      1. ” if you kept it as cash in any savings account that kept pace with inflation and quite a bit more if it was in a savings bond”

        Or, if you had kept the note itself sealed away for a century, untouched. In high grades of uncirculated, it’s worth several thousand dollars. Even the lower grades go for several hundred.

      2. Except for the fact that no savings account that I know of keeps pace with inflation, you’d be right.  I can get 1.5% in a “high interest” savings account at the moment, but with CPI inflation at 3.9% I’m still losing money.  They have made it so that we MUST risk our capital (i.e. with stocks and bonds) in order to just keep up with inflation because they keep printing more and more bogus money which causes more inflation!

        1. Ordinary savings accounts that beat inflation are hard to find nowadays, but most Certified Deposits still get you ahead of the game without any significant risk to your capital. Granted, CDs have only been available from the Federal Reserve since 1965 so my plan would require taking slightly more initiative with that initial $5 than a guy who just lies around in a coffin all day.

          If you plan on just burying your money in the hopes that your great-grandchildren can dig it up and spend it later then precious metals are a pretty good way to go. (Not precious-metal backed NOTES like the one above but the actual coins.) Then again, most people plan to actually do something with their wealth within their lifetimes, or at least within the lifetimes of their children.

        2. I never thought I’d see the day when people would complain about “high inflation” in the 3%-4% range.  I still remember car ads with promotional rates around 12%, and houses for sale in which sellers pledged to eat up to a third of the then-prevailing 18% 30-year mortgage rate just to get rid of them.  3.8% is “high” inflation?  What are you, 15?

  19. Just had the same thoughts about the unattractiveness of our U.S. legal tender. I was digging through some currency from Canada, England, France,  Fiji and Australia – all of it more intricate and more visually *lush* than our greenbacks.  

    Lots of the usual watermarking, but more color variations, size variations (for the sight-impaired) and content that was celebratory of the country. The bi-metal euro coins and the plastic Australian dollars are particularly neat. 

    I know it’s been proposed (and mocked up) by designers here a time or two, but no dice so far. 

  20. So why do people think gold and silver are worth anything anyway? If the world goes to hell to the point where major governments cease to exist, why would anyone in his right mind sell you things like food and fuel in exchange for a shiny lump of metal?

    1. Though gold and silver are indeed a “…barbarous relic” ; (quotation stolen from Keynes), they are considered an asset since as a raw material they can be converted into something precious. Gold and silver are mined and there is certain vanity and scarcity attached to that. The USA will someday go back on some sort “gold” standard or some other country will and their currency will be considered the best. 

      1. Though gold and silver are indeed a “…barbarous relic” ; (quotation stolen from Keynes), they are considered an asset since as a raw material they can be converted into something precious. Gold and silver are mined and there is certain vanity and scarcity attached to that.

        Amethysts used to be considered precious gems along with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies. Until someone found the motherload and they became effectively worthless. Scarcity is not always reliable in the long term.

    2. Because they can take that shinny lump of metal and buy other stuff with it – one of three basic functions of money: medium of exchange, a measure of value and a store of value.  

      Metal doesn’t break down (unlike food), it has normalized characteristics (unlike man-made object like chairs or tools), and it is easily measured and counted.

      1. Exactly, but it only has those properties because we, as a group, agree to believe that it does. The lump of metal has no intrinsic utility.

        Any series of events leading to the collapse of the current fiat money that serves those three functions would involve apocalyptic-scale breakdown of society. In that world, grain, petroleum, and tools are much more useful stores of value than gold, because they actually *have* value.

        1. Sorry, but both Silver & gold are very valuable industrial metals and have intrinsic value so they can never be worth nothing like our fiat currency can (and will soon be)

          1. True, but their value as industrial metals is nowhere near the value they have on the market. And if we tried to lock up the supplies of gold to use as money, the price would rise to the point that we would find other materials to substitute for industrial uses.

          2. At least you could burn the bills to stay warm, ward off the wolves and zombies. How do you use gold, assuming zombies are pursuing you?

    3. Shiny lumps of very heavy metal. Just what I need when I’m on the run from the zombies. No, the post-apocaconomy will be cans of beans and shotgun shells.

  21. And they’ll like it so much that the balance of payments will quickly go haywire.  Or there will be massive deflation (such was the case during the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression), and the economy will go down the crapper.  The gold standard (as would a balanced budget amendment, which is why it’s such a stupid idea) makes the Treasury severely inflexible during times of economic distress.

  22. Not only beautiful but REAL money backed by SILVER.  Not like the nearly worthless paper we use now devalued by run-away government spending and a corrupt Federal Reserve.

  23. You see, this is why we can’t have nice things. Pictures of lovely currency and you get dribblers foaming about how only prettyshiny things have value.

  24. Back in ye olde day, 1964, to be exact, I was a Cub Scout. Our pack was selling candy, and the premium to us cubs was a shiny new 1964 Kennedy half dollar per case sold. I sold four cases; I still have the coins. One kid’s dad (a skycap at the old Kansas City downtown airport), brought his son to work and moved a lot of product — the kid got some 350+ Kennedy halves. I still remember the sight of those rolls of coins. I’ve always wondered what the kid did with the money.

  25. Bryan was actually a social reformer for 1896. By 1926, the year of the Scopes Trial, he had become a bit of a fossil himself. Nonetheless he was still widely respected for his Presidential runs, and a lot of people who even sympathized with Scopes thought Darrow’s grilling of Bryan on the stand (something that would never be tolerated today) was over the line.

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