American presidents have been appearing on United States currency for almost 200 years now. Over that time designs have changed, denominations were introduced and removed from circulation, and the entire American economy has switched how it is backed. From starting with the silver standard, then to the gold standard, to being backed by no precious metals during the Civil War, then to a bi-metal standard, and finally to the gold standard again with the Gold Standard Act of 1900.
Several types of banknotes have been issued by the U.S. government over the years, with multiple types of banknotes even being circulated at the same time. Federal Reserve Notes were issued in 1914 and have been the only type of banknotes issued since 1971, which is the last year that United States Notes were issued. The present denominations of U.S. currency in production are $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. U.S. coins are currently made in six denominations: cent, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar. In honor of Presidents Day, here is a little bit of trivia regarding the POTUS that appear on those notes and coins:
- Most Common: Our first president, George Washington, appears on the $1 bill. The average lifespan of these bills is just 22 months, thus their production accounts for approximately 45% of all U.S. paper currency.
- Most Misunderstood: Thomas Jefferson is depicted on the $2 bill. Due to the bill’s low demand a very low number are printed. Since it is so infrequently seen in circulation, this has led to confusion among many as to the bill’s legitimacy as legal tender. The Treasury Department receives so many inquiries about this bill that they have included it on the FAQ portion of their website.
- Still Standing: Ulysses S. Grant adorns the $50 bill, and has since 1913. This is despite two separate attempts by Congress to replace his likeness with that of Ronald Reagan.
- About Face: President Abraham Lincoln’s profile graces the U.S. one-cent coin, and has the distinction of being the only person depicted facing right rather than left. According to the Treasury, they have no explanation for this and suggest it was a decision made by the original artist.
- Isn’t it Ironic?: The $20 bill depicts 13th president Andrew Jackson, a fact he might not be too fond of. Jackson actually cautioned America to abandon the paper money system in his farewell address. Whoops.
- Marching Forward: Franklin Delano Roosevelt has graced the dime since January 1946, just 11 months after he passed away. But why the dime? FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to help eradicate polio, the foundation had huge success with a campaign asking people to mail in just a dime to help support the cause. You may know the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis by another name though: The March of Dimes.
- Hair Raiser: After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Congress moved quickly to honor him. Originally intending to replace Washington on the quarter his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, nixed the idea and less than a year after his death half-dollar coins bearing his likeness were issued. However the first proofs made were not met with the former First Lady’s approval as she felt the coins made JFK’s hair stand out too much. Changes to the dye made the president’s hair appear less prominent and the coins were released to the public. Those proofs became known as the “accented hair” half-dollars and are now quite valuable among coin collectors.
- Double Duty: Several presidents appear on both paper currency as well as coins. President Abraham Lincoln has the distinction of appearing on both the $5 bill and the penny; and George Washington is on the $1 bill and the quarter; while Thomas Jefferson resides on the $2 bill as well as the nickel.
While we’ve focused on presidents appearing on currency and coins in production today, here are some bonus tidbits for you
- Three historical figures share the distinction of having their likeness on United States money today: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Sacagawea. Franklin appears on the $100 bill, and was of course one of America’s founding fathers, a noted inventor, author, scientist, and diplomat. Hamilton appears on the $10 bill, was another founding father, famous for writing The Federalist Papers, and was the first Secretary of Treasury. Sacagawea appears on the dollar coin, she was the Shoshone interpreter who was vital in guiding the famous Lewis and Clark expedition.
- Despite having never been president, Benjamin Franklin has the distinction of appearing on the largest bill, as production of the $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills ended in 1959.
- As mentioned above there have been two attempts to replace Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill. In total however seven pieces of legislation have been introduced to put President Reagan on U.S. currency. Twice on the $50 bill, twice to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill, once to replace Jackson on the $20 bill, once to replace JFK on the half-dollar, and once to replace FDR on the dime.
- President Woodrow Wilson made his appearance on the $100,000 bill. This note is the largest denomination of currency ever produced. It was used only for official transactions between Federal Reserve Banks and was not circulated among the general public.
Despite being a relatively young nation the currency of the United States has a long and interesting history, too varied to cover in this blog post. For example, did you know that Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (and namesake of Marshall University) John Marshall was once featured on a $20 Treasury Note and a $500 Federal Note? It’s true! Also other presidents have been featured on U.S. money, including James Madison, Grover Cleveland, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Recently the Treasury announced they were redesigning the $10 bill and launched TheNew10.gov to accept feedback and keep the public updated on their progress. Since the process of selecting portraits and designs of U.S. currency falls under the sole purview of The Secretary of the Treasury this level of transparency is unprecedented and of great interest to numismatics. If you are interested in learning more about America’s money we recommend visiting the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website at https://www.treasury.gov and your local library.