When large got small: The downsizing of America's paper money

Small-size notes led to design standardization, but not without developing their own charm
By , Coin World
Published : 08/18/14
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Editor’s note: In her September monthly Coin World cover feature, Michele Orzano told the story of small-size notes and how they changed American paper money. This is one of a series of articles from this feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com. 

Read other posts in the series:

The year 1929 introduced many changes to the American way of life. Perhaps the best known is the Great Depression, triggered by the Oct. 29, 1929, stock market collapse.

But another change occurred a few months before that and is still evident today for those who use or collect paper money. Small-size notes made their debut in the summer of 1929. 

The physical size of paper money probably rarely enters most people’s mind. There’s likely more concern about the size of the monetary denomination.

But the decision to downsize paper money and the immediate and long-term effects of the decision are interesting to explore.

Anyone who’s ever watched an American western movie or TV program has often seen scenes of gambling in a saloon, a train robbery or a stagecoach stickup. What is used for paper money in those scenes generally depicts what collectors refer to as large-size notes. 

The lavishly engraved designs of actual large-size notes would catch anyone’s eye, but for today’s audience it’s the physical size of the money that triggers a second glance. Most genuine large-size notes measure 7.5 inches by 3.125 inches. 

For many collectors, those notes had it all — beauty, security and a distinctive look. So why the change?

Treasury Department officials believed the change to a smaller size would reduce the costs of production, paper and ink. The downsizing concept was simple enough to understand but implementing the change was a monumental undertaking for the Treasury.

It took 20 years from when U.S. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh proposed the idea in 1909 until it became a reality. Three Treasury secretaries and scores of other government officials pondered the ramifications, argued about designs, and wrangled with machinery to complete the task. Changes in presidential administrations and World War I also played a part in the long delay of a decision.

In May 1927, Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon approved the designs and recommendations of yet another committee studying the change in size. The new size would be 6.14 by 2.61 inches.

Mellon directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to take the necessary steps to prepare plates for the new printing setup of 12 subjects per page instead of eight subjects used in printing the large-size notes, according to the History of Bureau of Engraving and Printing, published by the BEP.

Finally on June 30, 1929, the BEP completed production of the first supply of small-size currency. The smaller size notes were immediately released into circulation. The large-size notes remained legal to use (and they still are) but were gradually withdrawn and replaced with their smaller counterparts.

More of Michele Orzano's story on small-size notes is on the way! Check back with CoinWorld.com for the latest, or better yet, let us tell you when a new post is up:

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