When large got small: Emergence of small-size notes leads to standardization of portraits on U.S. paper money

Portraits of Founding Fathers and past presidents were linked to specific denominations
By , Coin World
Published : 08/19/14
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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 the first 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 decision to downsize paper money and the immediate and long-term effects of the decision are interesting to explore.

Standardized designs

During the preparation to transition from large- to small-size notes, Treasury officials made a decision to standardize portraits and link them to specific denominations:

  • George Washington on $1 notes. 
  • Thomas Jefferson on $2 notes. 
  • Abraham Lincoln on $5 notes. 
  • Alexander Hamilton on $10 notes.
  • Andrew Jackson on $20 notes.
  • Ulysses S. Grant on $50 notes.
  • Benjamin Franklin on $100 notes.
  • William McKinley on $500 notes.
  • Grover Cleveland on $1,000 notes.
  • James Madison on $5,000 notes.
  • Salmon P. Chase on $10,000 notes.

Officials also decided to standardize designs, a departure from past practices when different types of notes differed radically in design.

Between 1861 and 1929, 11 types of notes (silver certificates, gold certificates, national bank notes and so on) were produced. All had different designs, with some types going through multiple design changes. Each type required different inks and printing plates. 

Only six of those types would be printed in small-size versions: United States (legal tender) notes, silver certificates, national bank notes, Federal Reserve Bank notes, Federal Reserve notes, and gold certificates. 

Large-size legal tender notes, later named United States notes, were first issued in 1862 and continued through five issues total, culminating in Series 1901 notes. Several series of small-size United States notes were issued before they were abolished in 1993. 

Small-size silver certificates were issued in denominations of $1, $5 and $10 between 1928 and 1953. The Act of June 4, 1963, abolished production of silver certificates.

Large-size national bank notes were first issued in 1863 during the Civil War. 

The nation desperately needed an organized system of paper money to make up for the wartime shortage of coinage. Small-size versions of these notes were issued from July 1929 to May 1935, when production of national bank notes ceased.

Small-size gold certificates were short-lived due to the Gold Reserve Act of 1933, which required the surrender of all gold certificates both large- and small-size. On April 24, 1964, all restrictions on the acquisition or holding of gold certificates were removed.

The small-size gold certificates were given a gold Treasury seal and gold serial numbers on the face, and the back was printed in green ink.

The Federal Reserve Acts of Dec. 23, 1913, and April 23, 1918, set into motion the process for introducing large- and small-size Federal Reserve Bank notes and Federal Reserve notes. 

Federal Reserve banks opened for business Nov. 16, 1914. Small-size Federal Reserve notes have been printed in denominations of $1 through $10,000 amongst the various types, though not all denominations were used in every type of note. 

Today, the $100 note is the largest denomination printed. The small-size Federal Reserve notes were first printed in 1929 with a series date of 1928 in multiple denominations, the lowest of which was the $5 issue. In 1963, the Federal Reserve Act was amended to authorize the issuance of $1 and $2 FRNs; the first $1 issues were released that same year, with the first $2 FRNs issued in 1976. 

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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