Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Curious Case of the $2 Bill

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing about $2 bills is that when people talk about them—and they do talk about them, in a niche but thriving community—there seems to be a step missing in the logic. And that step is the first one. Everyone who deals with American money—even people who dedicate very little thought to the matter—knows that $2 bills are something worth commenting on. They're something worth commenting on because they aren't seen very much. They aren't seen very much because they aren't printed very often. They aren't printed very often because people are disinclined to use them. People are disinclined to use them because they are thought to be special—or sometimes even fake—because of how rare they are. And now we have come full circle without establishing how this thinking got started.

$2 BILLS IN HISTORY

The first printing of $2 bills was in 1862, just one year after the U.S. Treasury began printing paper money. Initially, the bill featured Alexander Hamilton, but in 1869, the first Secretary of the Treasury was replaced with Thomas Jefferson, whose portrait still graces the tender. Production was discontinued in 1966, with the Economic Review citing "insufficient use."

A decade later, twos were revived as part of a bicentennial celebration. A New York Times article from the year before the reintroduction reminded readers that "public reluctance to accept and use the $2 bill was the principal cause of its discontinuance nine years ago, and the main reason for that reluctance was the relative scarcity of the note in circulation." Again, circular logic: No one uses them because ... no one uses them. The Times went so far as to cite a Harvard Business School study that found an unlucky reputation was not to blame in the two's demise, with only two percent of respondents claiming to have ever associated the tender with bad luck.

The article reported government trepidation that a bicentennial bill would also be held out of circulation as a souvenir. Despite this concern, the 1976 twos were released with an image of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back and a plan to print 400 million bills annually.

$2 BILLS NOW

However, these days, they're printed whenever the demand arises—which isn't often, considering the reluctance to spend them. But as recently as last year, 45 million more $2 bills were introduced into the economy. To put that in perspective, the oft-overlooked denomination still makes up a mere 3 percent of all U.S. bills in circulation.

And now, it seems, we are living in a peculiar moment in the $2 bill story. As documented in a New York Times story from earlier this year, aficionados are trying to bring the bill back into vogue. The paradox is that the appeal of these bills is their very scarcity.

Heather McCabe—who is profiled in the piece—runs a blog, Two Buckaroo, where she documents the reactions of unsuspecting cashiers when she uses $2 bills in everyday transactions. I figured she might have some insight into our mystery. First, though, we needed to establish something. "When you ask why the bills became rare in the first place, are you asking about pre-1966 or post-1976?" she asked.

THE COLLECTIBLE $2 BILL

Post-1976 is easier to understand: The ten-year gap in production meant that the bills were, at least at first, naturally rarer than other denominations. And the concern about souvenir status was apparently not unfounded. According to McCabe, "When the $2 bill was reintroduced [on April 13, 1976], people could take first-day issues of the bill to the post office to get them stamped with a postage stamp and a rubber cancellation stamp. This made the bill seem special, a collectible, a keepsake." So many people had this same idea that the postmarked bills were rendered no more special than the regular old twos, but they still couldn't shake the status as a collector's item.

Pre-1966 is trickier, but McCabe has a theory that is reinforced each time she hands a cashier a $2 bill: "There's no commercial infrastructure for the bill in retail situations. Cash registers don't have a drawer for the $2 bill. As long as that's the case, the $2 bill will be a cash outcast."

That was true before 1966, and continues to be the case to this day. It seems like such a small thing, but the process can be internally exponential in that way. If $2 bills were always just a little bit more difficult to use than other denominations, perhaps that was just the push they needed to reach the incredulity-inducing, superstitious status they hold today.

Of course, why the cash registers were originally made without room for twos is just another question in the curious case of the $2 bill, but that might be a quirk that is lost to history.

Primary photo courtesy of Christopher Hollis via creative commons.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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