Money may make the world go round, but when was the last time you took the time to think about the history behind those bills in your wallet?
It can be helpful to reflect on how the humble $10 dollar bill — which has an estimated life span of 4 ½ years — unites us all with its promise of being exchanged for a fast food value meal (or the monetary equivalent).
Here's the story of how the sawbuck as we know it came to be.
When was the $10 dollar bill first printed?
The first $10 denomination of paper money issued by the U.S. government was the 1861 demand note featuring President Abraham Lincoln, who was struggling to keep the Union together after 11 Southern states had seceded.
Although the federal government issued the money, the notes were printed by the private American Bank Note Company of New York. Their acceptance varied from bank to bank.
The $10 dollar bill eventually gained wider acceptance (as did paper currency as a whole) throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, with private banks printing their own bank notes under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The faces gracing the $10 note during this period included New England politician Daniel Webster and famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
But it wasn't until the federal government asserted its complete dominance over the country's currency with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 that the country would begin seeing currency similar to today's greenbacks. In 1914, the first of the newly minted $10 dollar bills started circulating, featuring the portrait of Andrew Jackson (a president who enthusiastically oversaw the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836). It's worth noting these $10 notes had the purchasing power of around $256 in today's money, so the sight of one of the bills would be even more welcome than it is today.
Design changes to the $10 dollar bill throughout the years
Old Hickory continued to adorn the $10 dollar bill until 1929, when the federal government redesigned the nation's paper currency across the board. The notes shrank from 7.375-by-3.125 inches to 6.14-by-2.61 inches, while Jackson was replaced by the U.S.’ first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (who, along with Benjamin Franklin, is one of two non-presidents to have their portrait currently featured on paper currency).
For decades, the Hamilton $10 dollar bill would remain mostly unchanged, though interesting variations did crop up, including:
- A $10 silver certificate printed in 1933 as a response to the Great Depression. The federal government, worried that the economic crisis would create a run on gold, issued these bills, which could be redeemed for silver. Today, these bills can fetch more than a pretty penny — experts appraised one particularly rare bill as being worth at least $500,000.
- The Hawaii overprint bill printed and distributed in 1942. This $10 dollar bill most notably had the word "Hawaii" printed over its front and back and was only accepted within the island territory. The reasoning behind the measure was if the Japanese forces successfully invaded Hawaii, they wouldn't be able to capture large amounts of American currency.
- The 1963 $10 dollar bills featured the phrase "In God We Trust" for the first time in the note's history. This was the long-gestating result from the passage of a 1956 law enshrining the pious phrase as the official national motto (where it shares space with our de facto motto that was approved by the Founding Fathers, "E pluribus unum," which is Latin for “out of many, one”).
Big changes to the $10 dollar bill
As part of an effort to make our paper currency more difficult to counterfeit, the government drastically redesigned the $10 dollar bill in 2000.
This newly-designed bill featured a much larger portrait of Hamilton with anti-counterfeiting measures such as color-shifting ink, watermarks and more. This design was further tweaked in 2006 — for example, the addition of new background colors to make the bill even more difficult to counterfeit — to bring us the $10 dollar bill still in use today.
Even bigger changes were planned to the bill in 2015, when the Treasury Department announced it would replace Hamilton with a notable woman.
"America’s currency is a way for our nation to make a statement about who we are and what we stand for. Our paper bills — and the images of great American leaders and symbols they depict — have long been a way for us to honor our past and express our values,” then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement. “We have only made changes to the faces on our currency a few times since bills were first put into circulation, and I’m proud that the new 10 will be the first bill in more than a century to feature the portrait of a woman.”
While the Treasury Department began soliciting the public about which woman should be placed on the new $10 dollar bill, Lew backpedaled in the face of a backlash against removing Hamilton from the bill. He announced in the spring of 2016 that Hamilton would remain on the $10 dollar bill. Incidentally, he also said abolitionist Harriet Tubman would replace Jackson on the face of the $20 bill by 2020, but current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin delayed the unveiling of that historic currency until 2028.
Whenever Tubman does make her currency debut, it will mark another change for a currency that's continued to evolve with the country as a whole.