A $100,000 Bill? The Story Behind Large-Denomination Currency

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Your local convenience store may not accept bills larger than $20, but once upon a time you could have paid for your gum with a nice fresh $10,000 bill. What's the story behind the large-denomination bills that the government used to issue?

What big bills has the U.S. issued?

In 1928, the federal government overhauled its system of printing banknotes. It shaved about an inch of length and just under a half of an inch in width off the bills and issued the new smaller bills in the $1 to $100 denominations with which we're familiar. However, the Treasury also issued larger denominations. They featured William McKinley ($500), Grover Cleveland ($1,000), James Madison ($5,000), and Salmon P. Chase ($10,000).

Who the heck was Salmon P. Chase?

chase-10000

His name might not be as familiar as those of the presidents featured on the other big bills, but once upon a time Chase was a big wheel in American politics. Chase, a mid-19th century politician, served as Chief Justice of the United States, spent stints as Ohio's governor and senator, and was Lincoln's first Secretary of the Treasury.

Nice resume, but how did Chase end up on the $10,000 bill?

He was in the right place at the right time. When the federal government started issuing greenback notes in 1861, Chase, as Secretary of the Treasury, was in charge of designing and popularizing the new currency. The politically ambitious Chase had to pick a portrait subject for the first $1 bill, and he chose"¦Salmon P. Chase.

Although putting his face in everyone's pocketbooks never propelled Chase to the presidency, when the Treasury started issuing the new $10,000 bills in 1928 they put Chase's portrait on the obverse to honor the man who helped introduce modern banknotes.

Even if you don't have a $10,000 bill Chase's name might still be in your wallet. Chase National Bank, the forerunner to Chase Manhattan Bank, was named in his honor.

Why on earth was the government printing such giant bills in the first place?

Believe it or not, it wasn't just to save space in fatcats' wallets. When the Treasury started printing these giant bills, their main purpose was making transfer payments between banks and other financial institutions. Before sophisticated wire transfer systems were fully developed, it was apparently easier and safer just to fork over a $5,000 bill to settle up with a fellow bank. Once transfer technology became safer and more secure, there really wasn't much need for the big bills anymore.

What's the largest denomination of currency the U.S. has printed?

wilson-100-grand

That would be the Series 1934 $100,000 gold certificate. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing only made these notes during a three-week stretch during December 1934 and January 1935. Even the few plutocrats who had that much cash during the Depression couldn't carry one of the $100K bills, though. They were only used for official transactions between Federal Reserve Banks, and the Treasurer of the United States only issued them to Fed banks that had an equal amount of gold in the Treasury. The note featured a picture of Woodrow Wilson.

Are any of these bills left in circulation?

There sure are, but don't expect to find a $500 bill the next time you make an ATM withdrawal. The Treasury announced on July 14, 1969, that it would quit issuing the $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 notes immediately, since the bills were so sparsely circulated. It's not like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had to stop the presses, either; the bills hadn't seen an actual print run since 1945.

When the Treasury discontinued the bills, they rapidly fell out of circulation. However, a few are still lingering; as of May 2009, there were still 336 $10,000 bills at large. At the same time, Slate reported that there were also 342 $5,000 bills and 165,732 $1,000 bills still floating around.

If they're out of circulation, can you still spend them?

Although the Treasury is no longer issuing these bills, according to the Fed they're still legal tender. So yes, although it would probably raise some eyebrows, you could walk into Best Buy and plunk down a $1,000 bill to pay for a new plasma TV.

That wouldn't be the smartest move, though. Most of the high-denomination bills that are left in circulation are in collectors' safes, and at auction the bills tend to fetch prices that far exceed their face values. For instance, a pristine $10,000 bill can command a price as high as $140,000 on the open market.

What happens if you bring one of these big bills to a bank?

If you put it in your safety deposit box, your bill will be safe. Chase Bank actually acquired one of the $10,000 bills in its currency collection when a deceased customer's family found the bill in her deposit box and traded it for $10,000 in cash. Deposit the historical loot into your checking account, though, and it's bad news for the bill. You'll get the cash deposited in your account, but since the 1969 order to stop distributing these bills, Fed banks have been pulling the notes from circulation and destroying them whenever they are received.

Of course, there are other potential pitfalls to depositing a big bill, like blowing your cover when you're on the lam. Last February, three teenagers in Texas Township, Michigan, swiped one of their parents' safes and drove to Birmingham, Alabama, with their booty. Their downfall came when they tried to change an antique $1,000 bill from the safe at a bank. The police nabbed the thieves after a call from a suspicious teller.

So there was never a real $1 million bill?

Nope, but that doesn't mean that people haven't tried to make one. In 2004, a woman in Covington, Georgia, tried to pick up a $1,675 tab at a local Wal-Mart with a forged $1 million bill featuring a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Police quickly arrested her. It's hard to say what's more ludicrous: trying to pass off a million-dollar bill or thinking that Wal-Mart would just fork over $998,325 in change.

Someone gave me a fake $1 million bill as a joke. Was that illegal?

As long as you don't try to spend it or deposit it, you're in the clear. Gag makers and some religious and political groups have printed novelty $1 million bills for decades. In 1982, these novelty bills came to the attention of the Secret Service, which ruled that since there wasn't a real $1 million bill, these joke versions weren't technically forgeries or violations of any laws.

What about the opposite of these bills: the elusive $2 bill?

Although you don't see the $2 bill all that often, it's still a circulating denomination of American currency. According the U.S. Treasury, there are over $1.5 billion worth of $2 bills currently circulating around the world. However, since the bill changes hands less frequently than other denominations, it's not printed as often, either.

The Reasons Why Iceland Is So Expensive

iStock.com/Leopatrizi
iStock.com/Leopatrizi

More Americans are taking vacations to Iceland, and many are returning home with sticker shock. According to Iceland Magazine, “consumer prices in Iceland are on average 66 percent higher than in Europe,” with costs in the land of fire and ice outpacing famously expensive countries such as Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark.

Just look at the prices for food in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík: A pre-made sandwich at a grocery store can cost more than $10, while a single teabag (with “free” hot water) can run you $4. A meal for two at a casual restaurant regularly costs in the ballpark of $80 to $100 while a beer at a pub downtown goes for about $12 during regular hours. In other words: Visiting Iceland is sort of like being trapped in an airport ... except this airport has volcanoes.

As for what makes the country so expensive, there’s no single explanation. It’s a combination of politics, economics, and geography.

Let’s start with geography. Since Iceland nearly tickles the Arctic Circle, its climate is not conducive to farming. There are few native crops and the growing season is short. According to a report from the European Consortium for Political Research [PDF], Icelanders produced “64.9 percent of their own food and beverages in 2010.” The rest of that food was imported. The same goes for most other goods.

The cost of importing those products—usually from the UK, Germany, the U.S., and Norway—gets passed on to the consumer. In Iceland, imported sweets and alcohol are slapped with an extra cargo fee and all wheat products are subject to a relatively high tariff. So prepare to shell out for that bread.

The country’s currency also keeps costs high. In 2008, Iceland was plagued by a financial crisis that saw the country’s three banks fail and the value of the national currency, the króna, plummet. But the country has seen a miraculous recovery. Since 2009, the króna has strengthened by a whopping 40 percent against the euro. In 2017, it was deemed the world's best-performing currency. That has caused the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar to decrease.

Taxes also add to the cost. Like most countries, Iceland has a valued-added tax, or VAT. (In the United States, a close equivalent would be the state sales tax.) The VAT for goods in Iceland is 24 percent, while the VAT for foodstuffs is taxed at a discounted rate of 11 percent. For Americans, these tax rates are very high. Most states don’t even charge a sales tax on food at all.

(However, while taxes are a contributor, they are not the cause of high costs in Iceland. Many countries have similarly high VAT rates and are not as expensive. Germany, for example, has a 19 percent VAT—and a 7 percent VAT on foodstuffs—but is home to significantly cheaper groceries than those sold in the United States. It’s also important to know that, as an international visitor, you can get some of your VAT refunded.)

Rather, the biggest contributor to costs in Iceland is the country’s high standard of living. In Iceland, the average pre-tax income is about $60,000, with a median income of about $47,000. (In the U.S., the average income is about $48,150 with a median of around $31,000.)

In Iceland, approximately 92 percent of the country’s working population is part of a labor union. Consequently, people who work jobs that Americans might consider “low-wage”—especially jobs in the service industry—earn much higher wages and enjoy more benefits. In fact, the national monthly minimum wage for most industries is 300,000 ISK, or about $2500 per month. That’s equivalent to $15 an hour. But since employees earn more, customers generally pay more for goods.

And, of course, any tourist complaining about high prices should take a moment to point a finger at the mirror. Since 2010, Iceland has seen tourism multiply fivefold. With a growing number of people competing for a limited supply of goods, prices have continued to rise; the dastardly supply and demand curve strikes again!

LEGO Sets Might Be a Better Investment Than Stocks, Bonds, or Gold

iStock.com/georgeclerk
iStock.com/georgeclerk

The unfortunate part of turning a profit on collectible playthings is that you can’t enjoy them. Slabbed comic books go unread; vintage Star Wars action figures are condemned to their blister-packed prisons. But for people who can somehow resist the urge to rip open that LEGO set, fortune may await. Bloomberg recently reported that the brick building kits seem to serve as a reliable asset that can pay off over time.

Bloomberg cited a 2018 study [PDF] that demonstrated a stronger return for LEGO releases than with stocks, bonds, or gold. The reason is the supply and demand typical of the collector’s market. A new LEGO set will sell for a nominal retail price; as demand exceeds inventory and the sets are discontinued, the price on the aftermarket rises. For example: A 2007 Millennium Falcon kit carried a sale price of $499.99. In 2016, it was selling for nearly $4000.

That would be considered a big score. But the study, conducted by Victoria Dobrynskaya of Russia's National Research University Higher School of Economics and independent researcher Julia Kishilova, looked at 2322 kits dating back to 1987 and found that profit existed across a spectrum of LEGO-branded products. Sets carrying Harry Potter or Star Wars themes yielded an average 11 percent annual return. Some, like a 2014 Darth Revan, went from $3.99 to $28.46 in just one year, earning a return in excess of 600 percent.

Small and large sets tended to have the greatest increase in value, the smaller due to their comparative rarity and the larger ones due to their acquisition price. Licensed sets tend to achieve the greatest returns, though Dobrynskaya found that The Simpsons sets have traditionally failed to turn a profit.

Should you begin to regard LEGO as a potential avenue for retirement income? While the property experienced a resurgence of interest when it grabbed the Star Wars license in 1999 and has remained strong ever since, there’s no guarantee demand will continue unabated. Then again, the fact that the sets have a vibrant community devoted to building means they’re also unlikely to suffer the same fate as short-lived fads like the Beanie Babies.

The bigger problem? Unlike stocks, LEGO sets are tangible, with some coming in massive boxes that need to be carefully stored so they’re not exposed to damage. They’re also subject to the same speculative dangers as conventional investing. If you bought that Millennium Falcon, it's worth bragging about. If you decided to stock up on sets related to Atlantis or the 2010 movie Prince of Persia—which bombed—the price could sink. Like a bad real estate deal, you could be stuck with little more than a pile of bricks.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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