Money Mystery Uncovered: Show Me the Big Money

At one time, cash was printed in denominations up to $100,000. Read why they went out of circulation and what happens if you find a $10,000 bill in a shoebox.

Big money is hard to come by, especially if you want a $500 or $5,000 bill. Or how about a $100,000 bill?

Large denomination bills were part of everyday currency circulation in the United States for more than 100 years. Between 1862 and 1945, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills, or as they called them, “notes.” The notes were mainly used for large transactions between banks and businesses. The average person may have used them for large purchases, depending on where they lived and if merchants were comfortable accepting such big money.

While many of us have seen and used the $100 bill adorned with the face of Benjamin Franklin, it was World War I-era president Woodrow Wilson whose face was on the largest American currency – the $100,000 U.S. Gold Certificate. However, it was printed briefly and only for internal transactions between Federal Reserve banks.

The Wilson gold certificate is one of five now-obsolete denominations larger than the $100 bill. Production was halted during World War II and the Federal Reserve Board officially stopped distributing them in 1969.

The demise of big bills can be attributed to technology. “In an age of electronic transfer of funds, these notes are obviously not needed,” said Mary Beth Corrigan, PNC Legacy Project consultant. Her role includes advising on the bank's artifacts that date back to the 1700s, including checks written by U.S. presidents.

Watch the history of the $100,000 bill unfold

Easy Come, Easy Go

Although the $100,000 gold certificate will never be found in public circulation, there are rare occasions when other big bills find their way into people’s hands.

Some years ago, a young man walked into a PNC Bank branch and wanted to deposit 10 $1,000 bills. “The bills had belonged to the man’s grandfather,” said Karen Morgan from PNC’s bank operations. “They were given to him as a college graduation gift and at that time were worth more than their $1,000 face value.

“But, the young man was more interested in the immediate cash, so the $10,000 was deposited into his bank account.”

Since the bills were no longer in circulation, they had to be given to the Federal Reserve Bank, where they were destroyed, she added.

Morgan relates another instance involving a very rare $10,000 bill. “Shortly after an elderly man passed away, members of his family were at his house going through his possessions,” she said. “Down in the basement they found a shoebox and inside was an old $10,000 bill.”

Unsure what to do with a bill that was long out of circulation, a family member contacted a local PNC Bank branch for help. Since it was a rare bill, PNC contacted the Federal Reserve to determine the bill’s authenticity. The Fed checked the bill’s serial number and confirmed that it was real. The family cashed in the bill and the bank submitted it to be destroyed, Morgan said.

Rare Bucks Stop Here

Private collectors are now the primary home of those big bills that are still out there. Although they remain at face-value to the U.S. government, these notes are often traded by their owners for higher values because they are so rare. A select few high-denomination paper notes are also in museums.

Numismatists, collectors of coins and banknotes, estimate that a $10,000 note, for example, can fetch its owner between $65,000 and $100,000 on the collectors’ market. For this reason, there is little incentive for owners to deposit them into a bank at face value.

If you are lucky enough to come across one of these bills, keep in mind that depositing a large-denomination bill at a bank represents the end of the line for the relic. Because they remain legal tender but are not circulated, the Federal Reserve reconciles the paper note and, through an automated process, destroys it.

Visit PNC Legacy Project for information about the history of PNC and its predecessor banks dating back hundreds of years.

Mary Beth Corrigan, historian

Money Mystery: Face Facts

Large denomination “notes” featured the faces of various U.S. presidents and a chief justice. As of their final print date, the bills featured:

  • $500 – William McKinley
  • $1,000 – Grover Cleveland
  • $5,000 – James Madison
  • $10,000 – Salmon P. Chase (U.S. Chief Justice)

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