A completely cashless society sounds clean and convenient, and although we've made huge strides, we're not quite there yet. Despite the magic of PayPal, Square and credit cards, most of us need to carry around a handful of greenbacks. While we can choose from a rich array of singles, fins, sawbucks, Jacksons, $50s and Benjamins, there are several other denominations that the U.S. Treasury has discontinued. Here are the most notable ones.
Excluding the decade from 1966 to 1976, $2 bills have been printed uninterruptedly since the Civil War. Yet, the average American who doesn't handle cash for a living can go years without seeing one. One unfortunate Baltimore man attempted to buy something at a local Best Buy using $2 bills, and got arrested for using "counterfeit" money. Three hours later, the police sheepishly let him go.
Aesthetically, the $2 bill is something to behold. The reverse side features one of the most famous paintings in American history: "Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull.
But production of the $2 bill has been sporadic since its return. In fact, in most years the Bureau of Engraving and Printing doesn't produce any $2 bills. In a given year, barely 1% of the bills that roll off the presses are $2 bills. Yet, this intrepid little denomination could easily save you the trouble of carrying twice as many singles in your wallet.
The Treasury minted several versions of the $500 bill, the most recent one featuring President William McKinley on the front. The last $500 bill rolled off the presses in 1945, and was formally discontinued 24 years later. The Treasury began receiving these bills from financial institutions and exchanging them for fresh bills of smaller denominations.
Like all the bills featured here, the $500 bill remains legal tender. That being said, should you come into possession of a $500 bill, you'd be crazy to buy anything with it. Its market value far exceeds its face value, with even worn $500 bills commanding upward of a 40% premium on the open market.
The original $1,000 bill featured Alexander Hamilton on the front. When someone presumably realized that it might be confusing to have the same former Secretary of the Treasury on multiple denominations, Hamilton's visage was replaced with that of another dead president: the 22nd and the 24th, Grover Cleveland. Like its smaller cousin the $500 bill, the $1,000 bill was also discontinued in 1969. And like the $500 bill, the $1,000 bill would seem to have a lot more use now than it did then.
Why? Inflation, of course! The Consumer Price Index was at 36.8 then, while it's at about 231 today, meaning that a $1,000 bill today would be the equivalent of a relatively modest $159 bill during the Summer of Love. Does it make any sense that we've lost larger denominations as the value of a dollar has gotten progressively smaller? The Treasury argues that keeping the denominations inconveniently small minimizes the possibility of money laundering. This statement could be interpreted as an argument for getting rid of the $50 and $100 bills while we're at it, but that's a topic for a different time.
That being said, hold onto a $1,000 bill that finds its way into your palm even more tightly than you would a $500 bill. There are only 165,372 of the former still in existence.
The Treasury insists that there's no need for bills larger than $100. Canada has halted the printing of $500 and $1,000 bills. The $500 bill is in circulation, while the $1,000 has been withdrawn. However, the $500 note has been around since that currency's inception. As for bills of even larger denominations than $1,000, they enjoyed a brief run in American history before being relegated to memory status.
Also discontinued in 1969, the $5,000 bill was graced by a photo of James Madison, and finding one today takes pluck, luck and significantly more than $5,000. Fewer than 400 are believed to exist.
Salmon P. Chase might be the most accomplished politician in our nation's history never to have served as president. But even though he was a governor of and senator from Ohio, secretary of the treasury under Abraham Lincoln, and chief justice of the United States, Chase is remembered by most people – to the extent that he is remembered at all – as "the guy on the $10,000 bill."
The largest denomination ever printed for public consumption, the $10,000 bill never got much use. This lack of use is understandable, given that its value outstripped the net worth of the average American during most of the time the bill was available. The bill was part of the 1969 purge of large currencies, and like its $5,000 counterpart, only a few hundred authenticated samples survive.