Created By: arromdee on February 15, 2011 Last Edited By: arromdee on February 18, 2011


Name Space:
Page Type:
Here's a rough draft. Things that need to be added? More snark to put in?

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.
--The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry[[hottip:*:published 1906, the last 3 cent pieces were 1889 and it's conceivable some were still circulating]]

The spread of American media and American influence has made American currency at least somewhat well-known in many places. A quick review, which ignores coins made, at higher than their face value, for collectors:

  • Cents. A hundred of these make up a dollar. The coins themselves are often called pennies (never "pence"), but prices are still in "cents". These used to be made of solid copper but increasing copper prices (and pressure from the zinc industry) resulted in a change to zinc with copper plating in 1982. Most vending machines won't accept them and they are nearly worthless but they are handy in making change (note that tax in the US is added to the sale price, resulting in uneven totals) and there's no real sign of them going away.
  • Nickels (5 cents). The nickel is only about 25 percent nickel.
  • Dimes (10 cents). Smaller than the nickel. Contained silver up to 1964.
  • Quarters (25 cents). Contained silver up to 1964.
  • Half dollar (50 cents). Contained silver up to 1970. Generally not accepted by vending machines and rarely seen in circulation.
  • Dollar coins. In general circulation up to the 1930's (silver), then not until the Eisenhower dollar in the 1970's (not silver). The modern size of dollar coin was introduced with the Susan B. Anthony coin in 1979, which was reviled for looking almost exactly like a quarter. Current dollar coins are gold-colored and easier to distinguish, but remain unpopular, appearing mostly in post office and subway vending machines.

Banknotes: We could get into great detail about how banknotes have changed in design. Most of this will be useless information to you. The dominant color on them is still green, but shades of color were added when they were redesigned in the mid-2000's (except for the $1 bill). Banknotes contain anti-counterfeiting strips which, of course, led to a conspiracy theory on The X-Files.

  • 1 dollar; The most common bank note.
  • 2 dollars: The two dollar bill is a common butt of jokes and is almost never seen in the wild. Stories of stores believing they are fake turn up every so often, with varying degrees of dubiousness.
  • 5 dollars.
  • 10 dollars.
  • 20 dollars.
  • 50 dollars.
  • 100 dollars. The highest denomination in circulation.

Community Feedback Replies: 17
  • February 15, 2011
    Should there be mention of State Quarters?
  • February 15, 2011
    There's also the Sacajawea dollar coin from around 2000
  • February 15, 2011
    @KZN 02, not unless you want to include every variation, including (but not limited to) the gold president dollar coins, bicentennial quarters, new Jefferson and buffalo nickel variants, etc. The list may be too long, maybe just a note that the mint sometimes produces commemorative coins.
  • February 15, 2011
    I probably need to mention "In God We Trust" at some point...
  • February 15, 2011
    There are also larger bills still in use, the most common being the $500, and going right up to $100,000, but these are no longer in print.
  • February 15, 2011
    The cent is officially called the One Cent Piece; there is no "penny," that's a nickname leftover from the British monetary system. It now costs more than one cent to make, which is one of the reasons why there are periodic suggestions to do away with it.

    The dime is the only piece of American currency which doesn't tell you on it how much it's worth. Most Half Dimes[[hottip:*:worth the same as a nickel but made of silver; predates the nickel but there was a 7 year overlap where both were minted]] also didn't say how much they were worth, but they're no longer made.
  • February 15, 2011
    "Current dollar coins are gold-colored and easier to distinguish, but remain unpopular, appearing mostly in post office, subway vending machines and horse color breed standards."

    • is sick and tired of Palomino Horse Association and its kin*

    • The Dalton brothers in Lucky Luke once went after a money forger's secret (fake) money stash. A few adventures later (the money was buried under a huge rock inside a prison yard just to name the biggest obstacle) they finally got the treasure and life, boy, it was sweet. But wait. They're The Chew Toy of the series -- so what went wrong? They were all 3 dollar bills.
  • February 16, 2011
    Sorry, I don't get the horse reference.
  • February 16, 2011
    I guess it's quite a Geek Bonus... American "breed" associations for palomino horses expected registered horses to be coloured like "the USA gold dollar". "Breed" because the colouration cannot breed true. I wasn't really serious about it in any case :P
  • February 16, 2011
    We'll probably want a paragraph covering seigniorage (the gain the Mint gets from people buying or otherwise removing coins from circulation, one notable instance being the State Quarters).
  • February 16, 2011
    The dime does tell you how much it's worth. The name derives from a Latin word for "Tenth" (Similarly, "Cent" is for one hundredth, and the Quarter Dollar and Half Dollar describe their portions in fractional terms.)

    Also, the color schemes for American money have changed over the years based on various factors, this would mostly only really ever come up to add flavoring to what time period the movie takes place in, and could also become a plot point, if a character has a large sum of money (life savings or maybe the loot from a bank heist) and faces the prospect of it all becoming worthless due to a new format being issued (if you showed up to exchange a few million in cash in the old currency, it might raise some suspicion as to how you got it. Not to mention the danger of it being stolen from you on the way.)
  • February 17, 2011
    Another Lucky Luke example: in The Daily Star, the villains at first start their own newspaper to counter the fact that Greely's paper wrote damning articles on them, but start printing money once a counterfeiter joins their gang. One of the last panels is Greely asking the banker at what point he realized the bills were fake, to which he responds "What do you mean, my three-dollar bills are fake?"
  • February 17, 2011
    ^^A "tenth" of what? A cent? A dollar? A drachma? By way of comparison, a quarter doesn't say "one quarter" on it, it says "quarter dollar."

    But that reminds me, the first redesign of the nickel also didn't say how much it was for, it only had the Roman numeral "V" (five). Unscrupulous people were known to gild them and pass them off as 5 dollar coins. This was corrected by adding the word "cents" under the V.
  • February 17, 2011
    Be sure to include descriptions of what's on 'em, most importantly a who's-who of Dead Presidents (a term that, if you're not familiar with US currency, you may not realize refers to such).

    • The Penny: Abraham Lincoln. Freer of slaves, in commemoration of which, he was placed on the only brown coin (the previous statement is probably not true). The Lincoln Memorial is on the reverse side.
    • The Nickel: Thomas Jefferson is on one side, Monticello, the house he designed, is on the other.
    • The Dime: Franklin Roosevelt, the longest-serving president, is on the smallest coin. Fair?
    • The Quarter: George Washington, Father of the country, with a bald eagle on the back.
    • The rare 50-cent piece is adorned with JFK, the most recent president on standard currency, as far as I know.

    • The Dollar Bill has Washington (again) on the front, and the back is decorated with the insignia of our Illuminati overlords.
    • The rare Two-Dollar bill has Jefferson (again) on the front, and the back is a reproduction of John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence.
    • The Five is the Penny writ large: Lincoln (again) The Lincoln Memorial on the back is big enough you can make out some state names on the frieze, though not, as some people like to say, every state.
    • The relatively rare (ask a cashier) Ten has a gentleman named Alexander Hamilton, never a president, but the architect of the country's financial system and first Secretary of the Treasury (Secretary as in Head-Honcho, not like a Sassy Secretary). The Department of the Treasury is on the back.
    • The ubiquitous Twenty has Andrew Jackson, of whom much could be said. The White House adorning the back can be folded into a cool image of 9/11. So there's that.
    • The Fifty has Ulysses S Grant on the front, the Capitol building on the back.
    • The $100 Bill, which, much like the Hokey-Pokey, it is all about, features the inimitable Benjamin Franklin and Philedelphia's Independence Hall (the place where the back of the Two took place) on the back.

    Larger denominations still exist, having been printed in the 20th century for major financial transactions, money transfers between banks, etc. They're graced by such luminaries as Grover Cleveland and Obscurity Hall-of-Famer Salmon P. Chase.
  • February 17, 2011
    "The Penny...The Lincoln Memorial is on the reverse side."

    Not any more. After a centennial celebration featuring four different designs on the reverse in 2009, as of 2010 it now has a shield on the back. But when the Memorial was there, it was the only US coin to feature its Dead President twice. (You can make out Lincoln in the Memorial if you have a unworn coin and look closely.)

    And the rarity of the 50 cent piece and 2 dollar bill can be chalked up to people getting them and keeping instead of spending them (see seigniorage above). Both are still made; the half dollars are currently only produced for collector proofs since the mint has plenty of backstock on hand, but if/when they run low they'll mint up some more for general circulation.
  • February 18, 2011
    Too much detail on what the currency looks like will end up bloating the list with descriptions of how the design keeps changing. For instance, state quarters don't have a bald eagle on the back. And the multiple pennies described above.

    I agree on adding a reference to "Dead Presidents".
  • February 18, 2011
    Franklin should also be called out as not ever actually a President.