Unless you were born before the American Civil War (in which case, what’s your secret?), the same styles of currency have been in place all your life—save for a few facelifts to make certain bills harder to counterfeit, that is.
Before we landed on our (seemingly) final set of bills and coins, there were actually a variety of currencies that existed over the past century—and they definitely looked strange.
Here are just 10 examples of the weirdest and rarest bills and coins that were once circulated in the United States. Do you recognize any?
1. Silver certificates: Circulated in the United States from 1878 to 1964, these bills could be traded for their value in silver coins. Most surprisingly about these bank notes, they are still a form of legal tender to this day. The only difference is that, nowadays, they’re printed with the following memo: “One dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”
Also noteworthy of this bill? Between 1886 and 1891, the $1 silver certificate was the first American form of paper currency to feature the face of a woman. Of course, that would be Martha Washington, the wife of the first United States president, George Washington.
2. Continental Currency: The Continental Currency was released on June 22, 1775, upon the realization that the original 13 U.S. colonies needed a form of unified money. It received its name because the highest government body, the Continental Congress, issued it. At the time, however, there was no gold to back the money—just a person’s word that they’d repay the amount of funds created during taxes in the future.
This form of repayment led to a massive problems with inflation that only worsened when the British began releasing a counterfeit version of the note. Not to mention, there was never a set value for any given peice, and it varied wildly from colony to colony. This form of currency eventually crashed in May 1781, resulting in a high debt for the United States following the Revolutionary War.
3. The $100,000 bill: In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt made everyone in the United States turn over their gold bullion, gold certificates, and gold coins, because people were hoarding them and refusing to accept paper currency. The paper version became so useless that people tended to barter with one another before accepting it as payment.
After the public was forced to turn over their gold, however, paper money began to circulate and popularize. It wasn’t long after that they officially released the $100,000 bill, featuring the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The bill was so large—the highest in US history, in fact—that it was not issued for everyday use. Instead, it was only to be used in high transactions between the Federal Reserve.
4. Demand Notes: In 1861, after Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase recommended that paper money be issued following mass inflation from gold and silver coins following the Civil War, the United States first released the Demand Notes, the first true paper money ever circulated in the country.
At the time, the government was given $10 million worth of the notes to exchange for the public’s silver and gold, though the people were reluctant to comply. In 1862, after Congress enacted a law that made a new form of currency that couldn’t be redeemed with silver and gold, the current dollar was introduced.
5. Fractional currency: Since so many people were hoarding their silver and gold coins during the Civil War, the U.S. Treasury issued this currency in the form of coins valued between one and fifty cents. The public, however, hated them, calling them shinplasters for the cheap, thin paper from which they were made.
In 1865, Congressman John Kasson, who had previously and famously denounced using nickel in coins, proposed the three-cent nickel. The three-cent-silver, the three-cent nickel, and the three-cent fractional were used in the United States until 1873; all fractional currency ended a few years later in February 1876.
6. The $1,000 bill: Out of print since 1946 (but in circulation until 1969), the $1,000 bill was among the rarest forms of legal tender in the United States. In fact, when such bills are deposited at banks in the country, they are supposed to be turned over to the Federal Reserve, which permanently removes them from circulation.
They were first printed during the Civil War, and they were only the second $1,000 bill that was introduced, since people could acquire them as Continental Currency. These bills were used by the Union to purchase supplies for the war, including ammunition. After the war ended, they were made to only be used by banks and between property sales. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon officially took them out of circulation in 1969.
7. The $10,000 bill: Where the $100,000 bill was made to be used for transactions between banks, the $10,000 bill was the highest form of legal tender the U.S. ever printed for everyday use. Much like the $1,000, it was taken out of circulation in 1969, though it is still technically a form of legal tender.
It featured the portrait of Salmon P. Chase, who was appointed Secretary of Treasury during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Nowadays, it is estimated that there are fewer than 350 of these bills in circulation. They could potentially sell for $140,000 in mint shape and $30,000 in imperfect shape.
8. The Double Eagle: Issued between 1907 and 1932, this $20 gold coin was removed from circulation by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, when he banned U.S. citizens from keeping gold. Nevertheless, there were 445,300 versions of the coin made following his executive order that were never put into circulation. In 1937, they were melted and made into bullion—at least, they were supposed to be…
Many people have long believed some 20 of the coins were snuck out by a U.S. Mint cashier named George McCann. Nineteen of them were later found in possession of a jeweler named Israel Swift, though he eventually sold nine to coin fanatics. One of these was stored in the World Trade Center in New York City; two months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center towers, it was moved to Fort Knox. It eventually sold for $750,000.
9. Treasury notes: Following the Legal Tender Act in July 14, 1890, the Secretary of Treasury released this series of bills in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, and $1,000 as a payment to the Treasury for turning over their silver bullion.
At the time, there were plans to issue the $500 bill, though they eventually fell through. There were two versions of Treasury notes created, and both are high-paying collectors items. The ones printed in 1890 are said to be worth much more, since they’re more rare.
10. The aluminum penny: In 1973, copper became so expensive that an alternate material was needed. That’s when the Treasury decided to move forward with aluminum. The next year, they began printing and stamping them…
The coins, however, proved to be faulty in many vending machines and were thusly recalled by Congress in 1974. Though the U.S. Mint is said to have melted all of them, there are believed to be 15 aluminum pennies that are still unaccounted for.
We get so used to using the money in circulation today that it’s hard to imagine any other form of currency ever existed!
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