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Portraits & Designs

Why were certain individuals chosen to be pictured on our paper currency?

As with our nation's coinage, the Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval. This is done with the advice of Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) officials.

The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities. Therefore, the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.

The basic face and back designs of all denominations of our paper currency in circulation today were selected in 1928, although they were modified to improve security against counterfeiting starting in 1996. A committee appointed to study such matters made those choices. The only exception is the reverse design of the one-dollar bill. Unfortunately, however, our records do not suggest why certain Presidents and statesmen were chosen for specific denominations.


What portraits are found on United States paper currency that is in circulation today? Whose portraits were included on currency notes that are no longer produced?

United States currency notes now in production bear the following portraits: George Washington on the $1 bill, Thomas Jefferson on the $2 bill, Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill, Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill, and Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill.

There are also several denominations of currency notes that are no longer produced. These include the $500 bill with the portrait of William McKinley, the $1,000 bill with a portrait of Grover Cleveland, the $5,000 bill with a portrait of James Madison, the $10,000 bill with a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, and the $100,000 currency note bearing a portrait of Woodrow Wilson.


What is the significance of the symbols on the back of the one-dollar bill? I'm particularly interested in the eye and the pyramid.

The eye and the pyramid shown on the reverse side of the one-dollar bill are in the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal was first used on the reverse of the one-dollar Federal Reserve note in 1935. The Department of State is the official keeper of the Seal. They believe that the most accurate explanation of a pyramid on the Great Seal is that it symbolizes strength and durability. The unfinished pyramid means that the United States will always grow, improve and build. In addition, the "All-Seeing Eye" located above the pyramid suggests the importance of divine guidance in favor of the American cause. The inscription ANNUIT COEPTIS translates as "He (God) has favored our undertakings," and refers to the many instances of Divine Providence during our Government's formation. In addition, the inscription NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM translates as "A new order of the ages," and signifies a new American era.


What is the significance of the series date on our currency? Doesn't the date change each year as it does with coins?

A new series will result from a change in the Secretary of the Treasury, the Treasurer of the United States, and/or a change to the note's appearance such as a new currency design. After the Secretary of the Treasury changes, a new series year is adopted. When the Treasurer of the United States changes, a suffix letter is added to the series year (e.g. 1999A). Additional changes of the Treasurer, whereby the Secretary of the Treasury remains the same results in subsequent letter changes to the current series year (e.g. 1999B, 1999C, etc.). On newly designed notes, the series year may appear on the right or the left of the note’s face side. The year in which the currency is actually printed is not indicated on the note. Beginning with Series 1996 Federal Reserve notes, there are two prefix letters to the serial number. The first prefix letter indicates the series year. The second prefix letter indicates the issuing Reserve Bank.


What States are shown on the back of the five-dollar bill?

The vignette on the reverse of the five-dollar bill depicts the Lincoln Memorial. You may be aware that, engraved on that Memorial are the names of the 48 states in 1922, which was the year the Memorial was dedicated. There are engravings of 26 State names on front of the building, which appears on the note vignette. As a result, only 26 of the States appear on the note.

The upper frieze of the Memorial bears the States of Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, West Virginia, Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, and North Dakota. The lower Frieze lists the States of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, and New York. In addition, the engravings show the abbreviated names "Hampshire" (for New Hampshire) and "Carolina" (for South Carolina). We have no information why the prefixes for these states were not used.


Why are the designs on our paper money being changed?

To protect your hard-earned money, the U.S. government expects to redesign its currency every seven to 10 years. Counterfeiting of U.S. currency has been kept at low levels through a combination of improvements in security features, aggressive law enforcement and education efforts to inform the public about how to check their currency.
 

The United States government continues issuing currency with enhanced designs and security features.

The Department of the Treasury has historically continued to honor previous designs of our currency. Furthermore, the Department has never recalled currency when introducing a new design. There are billions of dollars in U.S. currency circulating worldwide. Any new design, when issued, would enter circulation in a deliberate and organized way, avoiding any recall or exchange. This will ensure the continued confidence of people in the value of the U.S. currency they now possess.

 
Last Updated: 11/1/2012 1:43 PM

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