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The basic look and design of U.S. paper currency has remained relatively unchanged for decades. Sure, there have been some tweaks to elements of the design and production in an effort to battle counterfeiting, but a new $20 bill looks very much like its recent predecessor.
But that hasn’t always been the case. Until the U.S. adopted a national currency in 1863, the government allowed private banks to issue their own notes, theoretically redeemable for gold or silver. At that time, there were about 1,600 state banks designing and printing their own notes — each with a different design. This means there were as many as 7,000 varieties of genuine notes.
This timeline shows the evolution of the standardization U.S. paper currency.
1690: Paper currency in the United States is born, issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to fund military expeditions. Other colonies quickly take up the practice of issuing paper notes.
1739: Benjamin Franklin takes on counterfeiting. His Philadelphia printing firm began printing colonial notes with nature prints — unique raised patterns cast from actual leaves. This process adds an innovative and effective counterfeit deterrent to notes.
1776: On June 25, 1776, the Continental Congress authorizes issuance of the $2 denominations in “bills of credit” for the defense of America. This makes original $2 notes nine days older than America.
1862: Congress authorizes a new class of currency, known as “United States notes,” or “Legal Tender notes.” These notes are characterized by a red seal and serial number. They continue to circulate until 1971.
1863: Congress establishes a national banking system and authorizes the U.S. Department of the Treasury to oversee the issuance of National Bank notes. This system sets Federal guidelines for chartering and regulating "national" banks and authorizes those banks to issue national currency secured by the purchase of United States bonds.
1869: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing begins engraving and printing the faces and seals of U.S. bank notes. Before this, U.S. bank notes were produced by private bank note companies and then sent to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for sealing, trimming and cutting.
1889: Legislation mandates that all bank notes and other securities containing portraits include the name of the individual below the portrait. This continues to present day.
1929: U.S. bank notes undergo major change in 1929. In an effort to lower manufacturing costs, all Federal Reserve notes are made about 30 percent smaller — measuring 6.14 x 2.61 inches, rather than 7.375 x 3.125 inches. In addition, standardized designs are instituted for each denomination, reducing the number of designs in circulation and making it easier to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes.
1957: Following a 1955 law requiring “In God We Trust” on all currency, the motto first appears on bank notes on $1 silver certificates, then on 1963 series Federal Reserve notes.
Want to learn more about U.S. currency? Read what happens when good money goes bad.
Foreign coins were fair legal tender in the U.S. until 1857. Before this time, the U.S. didn’t have enough gold and silver to mint its own coins
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