Cheddar, doubloons, big-ones, ‘the almighty dollar’; cash goes by many names. From bullet sized silver blobs in Thailand to the giant Rai stone-money on the island of Yap, money has been a medium of exchange between people for thousands of years. So how did we end up with copper-nickel rounds and green cotton-paper with the portraits of political leaders in our pockets today?

A Sassy Response to the British. Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it became clear that United States was going to pay for a very expensive war. But how do you pay for a war when the money you own is minted and accepted by your enemy? You can just make your own money, right? This is what the Founding Fathers believed. They started issuing paper ‘Continentals’ in denominations of  “dollars” rather than “pounds” to antagonize the British. Unfortunately, the British caught on and issued millions of counterfeit ‘Continentals’ to flood the young American economy, crushing consumer confidence in the new currency. In response, the United States declared the Spanish Peso or ‘Piece of Eight’ as an accepted currency of the country from 1785 to 1857.

Money Was Under the Jurisdiction of the Secret Service? While we generally think of the Secret Service as the security for the President, their original responsibility was to investigate counterfeit U.S. currency. Rampant counterfeiting was too much work for local and federal authorities that were preoccupied with crime during the war, so a new Federal agency was suggested to handle financial fraud. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln established the Secret Service on April 14, 1865, the day he was assassinated.

Going Green for An Interesting Reason. The introduction of photographic technologies that made Civil War photos possible also made counterfeiting currency easier. The Federal Government outsourced currency printing to a company that gained attention for using patented anti-counterfeiting ink. The ink was green, meaning it couldn’t be copied by black and white photographic technology. When the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing was presented with an opportunity to change U.S. currency in 1929, they chose to stick with green mostly out of tradition.

Obsolete Denominations. The United States has gone through some truly interesting denominations of coin and currency. Coin values no longer in circulation include the half cent, 2 cent, 3 cent, half dime, 20 cent piece (which circulated at the same time as the quarter with an almost identical design), 3 Dollar, and the Eagle ($10 denomination also circulated in Quarter, Half, and Double Eagles). Currency denominations were also once printed in fractional cent values to combat Civil War coin hoarding. These fractional denominations were issued in 3, 5, 10, 15, 25, 50 cents respectively. Large denomination bills were also once issued in 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 100,000 dollars respectively. Legally these are all still legal tender but may receive some strange looks from cashiers and tellers.

A Disgraced Head of the Currency Bureau Led to the Nickel. The fractional currency created during the Civil War went through five separate design changes, and was supposed to feature “Clark” on the five-cent note. Congress was expecting William Clark of Lewis & Clark, but was infuriated when it displayed the portrait of Spencer M. Clark, the current Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau. Congress immediately passed two laws in response. The first law was to officially retire the five-cent note and the second was to forbid U.S. currency from depicting any living person. This created an interesting dilemma for Congress since they needed smaller denominations, but were hesitant to use silver coins. As a result, the mint released a copper-nickel three cent piece in 1865. And thanks to its success, it eventually re-introduced a five cent coin recognized today as the nickel.

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