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

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 of 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?

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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?

million-dollar-billNope, 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?

two-dollar-billAlthough 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 Treasury hasn't whipped up a batch of twofers since 2003 2006.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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