Retired U.S. Currency: Big Bucks of American History


Anthony Bertollo, Staff Writer

There are many iconic staples that have been a part of American culture for centuries and one of the most notable ones is the American dollar bill. It goes without saying that everybody has gotten their hands on a $1 bill, $5 bill, $10 bill, and a $20 bill. If anyone’s lucky, they can even get their hands on a $50 bill or a $100 bill. Many people think that the highest bill possible is the big 100. However, many American bills throughout history would beg to differ.

Believe it or not, at one point in time, there were $500 bills, $1,000 bills, $5,000 bills, $10,000 bills, and even $100,000 bills! Anybody would love to stuff their wallets with these large denominations. But the real question is, where did they come from and where did they go?

The earliest point in history when numerous big bucks hit the scene was May 10, 1780, when the first $500 bill was issued by the Providence of North Carolina. During the War of 1812,  the initial version of the $1,000 was authorized on June 30, 1812. In addition, $500 and $1,000 bills were used as Confederate currency during the American Civil War. During the first federal banknote issuing period, the $5,000 bill was introduced, along with new variations of the $500 and $1,000. On March 9, 1933, the first $10,000 and $100,000 bills were introduced along with Series 1934 gold certificates of the $100 and $1,000 bills after Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, replaced the gold standard. However, these Series 1934 were only for Federal Reserve Bank transactions and could not be held or used by the public.

Unfortunately, these big bucks weren’t meant to last, as they were all officially discontinued on July 14, 1969. The reason for their retirement was a lack of use, according to the Federal Reserve System. Over time, big bills were taken out of public circulation, and the Federal Reserve destroyed the ones that were received by banks.

As of 2020, neither the Federal Reserve System nor the Department of Treasury has any intention of bringing the big bills back, especially with electronic money systems introduced earlier this year, making large-scale cash transactions obsolete.

Nonetheless, there are many collectors today that actually are in possession of a $500 or $1,000 bill. In addition, there are only 342 $5,000 bills and 336 $10,000 bills still in existence as of January 14, 2020.

A quick breakdown of who was the face of the latest incarnation of each individual bill:

$500 bill – William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. 

$1,000 bill – Two time United States President Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th).

$5,000 bill – The fourth President of the United States James Madison, who many historians refer to as the “Father of the Constitution”. The back of the bill depicts George Washington stepping down as commander-in-chief of the Constitutional Army.

$10,000 bill – Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

$100,000 bill – Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States.

At the end of the day, while we the public can never get our hands on any of these big bills, it’s fun to look back and take in the fact that we live in a world where they existed at some point. Although, everyone can agree it would be nice to have them in your back pocket if you’re ever in a financial pickle!