The history of the US dollar predates the United States itself. It goes back to the Revolutionary War when all thirteen colonies issued a single currency to fund the war against Britain. The current dollar was first issued during the Civil War. Several other currencies were introduced before, during, and after the war, and some even coexisted alongside the current dollar.
Interestingly, the present-day US currency has some bills that are rarely seen or even heard of. Ever heard of the $100,000 bill? Maybe not. Well! Here are ten old-timey bills and currencies of the US. Mind you, some are still legal tender even though they are out of print.
10 Silver Certificates
Silver certificates were issued in the US between 1878 and 1964. They were used like regular money and were originally redeemable for their face value in silver coins. However, between June 1967 and June 1968, they could be exchanged for silver bullion and thereafter, regular bank notes. They remain legal tender and can still be traded for current bank bills. In fact, silver certificates closely resemble bank notes, except that their fine print reads “one dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”
Interestingly and unknown to many, two versions of the $1 silver certificate issued in 1886 and 1891 are the first American paper money to ever feature the portrait of a woman. The woman was Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington and the first, first lady of the United States. Martha Washington silver certificates are valued among collectors. An 1891 version in perfect condition sells for about $1,500.
9 Continental Currency
The Continental Currency was issued on June 22, 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when the thirteen colonies that would later form the United States agreed they needed a unified currency to prosecute the war against Britain. The money was called “Continental” because it was issued by the Continental Congress, which was the highest governing body during the war. It consisted of delegates from all thirteen colonies.
The currency was backed by nothing other than the promise that it would be repaid from the funds generated from future taxes. The public had no trust in the money, and it led to inflation so bad that even George Washington complained about one wagonload of Continental Currency not buying one wagonload of supplies. Britain worsened the effect of the inflation by releasing counterfeit notes into the US.
The value of the Continental Currency varied from colony to colony. People even coined the idiom “not worth a Continental” to describe the worthlessness of an object. The money became so unstable that it crashed in May 1781. The failure of the currency put the newly formed United States in heavy debt at the end of the war. It was even one of the reasons why the US abandoned the idea of a confederation for a stronger central government. The US itself avoided issuing paper money until the Civil War.
In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all US citizens to surrender all gold coins, gold bullion, and gold certificates in their possession. This was at the height of the Great Depression when people hoarded their gold and refused to accept paper money. In fact, paper money became so worthless that barter (the exchange of goods for other goods or services) became the preferred medium of exchange.
With most citizens separated from their gold, they were forced to spend the paper money. The federal government itself printed more money including a new $100,000 bill that featured the portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States.
There was a catch though. The bill was not legal tender since it was not intended for general use. It was specially made for branches of the Federal Reserve to use in high-value transactions. It remains the highest single bill denomination ever printed in the US.