The two dollar bill has everything-interesting facts, urban legends, celebrity fans, and myth. Some think it’s unlucky, others think its value exceeds two dollars.
Two-dollar bills have been around a little less than 150 years. In that time there have been legends concerning its true value, scarcity, luckiness, and legality. What follows will help separate the myths from the facts.
History of the Two-Dollar Bill
The two-dollar bill has gone through several changes during its history. The story began in 1862 and continues to the present (2009).
- First printed in 1862 with the portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the obverse (front). It was a profile as opposed to the portrait of Hamilton displayed on today’s ten-dollar bill.
- In 1869, Hamilton was replaced by his political adversary, Thomas Jefferson, and the United States Capital.
- Over the years the bill has carried various “note” references (United States Note, Treasury Note, Silver Certificate, Federal Reserve Bank Note).
- Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock appeared on the obverse of the bill.
- U.S. Treasury Secretary William Windom replaced Winfield in 1891.
- In 1896, the bill became known as the Educational Series. It had symbolic representations of science introducing steam and electricity to manufacturing and commerce. The reverse side of the bill contained portraits of Robert Fulton (steam) and Samuel Morse (electricity).
- 1899 saw the bill changed again. This time George Washington appeared surrounded by anthropomorphic versions of agriculture and mechanics.
- Thomas Jefferson returned on the obverse in 1918 with World War I battleship on the reverse of the now large-sized Federal Reserve Note.
- In 1929, the bill reverted to its current size and the reverse was changed to a picture of Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
- In August of 1966, the two-dollar bill was officially discontinued.
- It was brought back to life in 1976 and for the Bicentennial, an engraved version of John Trumbull’s The Signing of the Declaration of Independence replaced Monticello on the reverse.
- Series 1995 was printed in 1996 and 1997.
- Series 2003 is currently the most recent printing.
The bills are printed according to demand. The bills are not in high demand and therefore are published less frequently and in smaller quantities than other bills. (Approximately 1% of all paper bills made are two-dollar bills. In comparison, 48% are one-dollar bills.)
A number of stories circulate with regularity about the two-dollar bill. Most are not true—to the last detail. However, some do have just a bit of fact somewhere in the tale.
- A coastal town does pretty good when the naval recruits have shore leave but these same recruits get rowdy and cause enough problems that some merchants began to complain. The navy started paying the sailors with a large portion of two dollar bills thus making the shopkeepers reconsider the complaints rather than get stuck with the two-dollar bills.
- Various stories about people attempting to use two dollar bills to pay a bill and having the currency rejected or worse being accused of counterfeiting a non-existent bill and perhaps even arrested. In most instances a senior staff member or older individual will confirm that these bills are viable and the situation usually resolves itself. There are far more reported occurrences of arrest than have actually taken place. There has been only one verified case of someone getting arrested for using the bill.
- The two-dollar bill is so rare that it is valuable as a collectible and has a true value between five and ten dollars. Except for some extremely rare and old exceptions, most two-dollar bills are worth exactly… two dollars.
The two-dollar bill has spawned a number of idiosyncratic behaviors in the general population.
- “Tom Crawl” is used to describe someone who is actively seeking two-dollar bills from banks or businesses. As an example: “He’s doing a Tom Crawl.”
- In the past, strip clubs would make change using two-dollar bills to encourage larger tips.
- Stuart Woods wrote a novel called “Two Dollar Bill.” One of the major characters made it a point to always tip with two-dollar bills.
- The two-dollar bill has a long association with horseracing and was popular at racetracks for placing a two-dollar bet.
- Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computing, buys two dollars by the sheet from the Treasury Department. He then has them bound into a booklet and the bills act as “tear off” pages. (Note: Sheets of paper currency can be purchased but at a considerably higher price than the face value of the bills if they were already cut.)
- “Top Toms” is an unofficial club on the Where’s George American currency tracking site for those who have posted over 2000 or more two-dollar bills.
The two-dollar bill has been around for nearly 150 years. Cursed by some and sought by others. Hopefully it will remain a rare but pleasant oddity in our national currency.