In our last blog, we took a look at the major types of large size U.S. currency that circulated between 1861 and 1929. This week, we’ll review the major types of small size currency that has circulated for roughly the last 90 years. Realistically, almost no one is left alive who remembers large size notes in extensive circulation, as by the early 1930s they were effectively gone from the wallets and cash registers of the nation.
So with that introduction, we’ll look at the six major types of small size notes that have been printed since 1929. Bear in mind as well, that for nearly 50 years now, the only types of notes circulating have been the green seal Federal Reserve Notes, so anyone who remembers blue seal Silver Certificates or red seal United States notes in circulation probably has at least a few grey hairs around their temples.
- Legal Tender, or United States Notes (Red Seal): Legal Tender Notes are among the oldest series, having first been issued in 1862. The Act of May 3, 1878 mandated that the amount of United States Notes in circulation had to be kept at roughly $346 million, so up through the late 1960s, U.S. Notes in denominations of $2, $5, and $100 remained outstanding. In 1993, the 1878 Act was repealed and all notes remaining in the Treasury Vaults were destroyed, although they had long since disappeared from circulation.
- Silver Certificates (Blue Seal): Another very old series, small size Silver Certificates were made in denominations of $1, $5 and $10. The obligation at the base of the note indicated that the face value of the note would be “Payable in silver to the bearer on demand.” This redemption “privilege” was ceased by a June 24, 1968 Congressional Act, although the notes continued to be valid at their face value.
- National Bank Notes (Brown Seal): From July 1929 through May 1935, Chartered National Banks were able to issue their own notes. While they were identical in design, and all printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, they carried the name of the local issuing bank on the front of the note, as well as the facsimile signatures of the Bank’s President and Cashier. Many thousands of banks from all the 48 states as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia issued notes in denominations ranging from $5 to $100. Most collectors today concentrate on the issues of a few of their favorite states, as attempting to collect them all is nearly impossible.
- Federal Reserve Bank Notes (Brown Seal): Closely related to the National Bank Notes, the Federal Reserve Bank Notes looked similar but were issued from one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks set up across the country. Like the local National Bank Notes, denominations ranged from $5 to $100, and all were Series 1929.
- Federal Reserve Notes (Green Seal): These notes constitute our present currency system, and have effectively been the only circulating issue since the mid-1970s. First issued with the Series of 1928 (released in 1929) in denominations from $5 to $10,000, a $1 note was added in 1963 with the phasing out of the Silver Certificates, and a $2 note appeared in 1976. The notes all carried similar designs from the late 1920s until the mid-1990s, when a redesign began which featured larger portraits and new security and anti-counterfeiting measures. High denomination notes, very popular today with wealthier collectors, were phased out starting in the 1950s after credit cards began to gain in popularity.
- Gold Certificates (Yellow Seal): For a few years (1929-1933), Gold Certificates were issued in denominations from $10 to $1000. The obligation stated that these notes were redeemable in gold coin by the bearer on demand, but that promise was quickly broken by the Gold Reserve Act of 1933, requiring the surrender of all these notes. Luckily, some have survived, and in 1964, they were again declared legal to collect.
7. Emergency Issues: Finally, there were some Emergency Issues released during World War II. In the event Hawaii was overrun by the Japanese, special brown seal Federal Reserve notes with a HAWAII overprint on the back were printed for use on the islands during the war. Also, Silver Certificates with a distinctive yellow seal were issued for use by the Armed Forces fighting in Europe and North Africa.
Collecting small size currency is a very enjoyable field, as there are only a few really rare notes. Of course, the ultra-high denomination notes ($5000 and $10,000) are now worth many times their face value, and are priced today at $50,000 and up. The Gold Certificates over $100 are scarce and will require a mid four-figure or five-figure expenditure, depending on their condition. Also the 1933 $10 Silver Certificate is quite scarce, as only 216,000 were originally printed and 60,000 of those were never released. Of those, the vast majority were removed from circulation an only a tiny fraction survived.
In future blogs, we’ll take a look in a bit more detail about various aspects of currency collecting, including grading, rarity and approaches to building sets.