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United States currency is a more formal name for Paper Money. The United States first printed currency in 1861, to combat the coin shortages caused by the beginning of the American Civil War. Currency is essentially a promise (by the government) to pay a specific amount as represented by the denomination imprinted on the notes.
Prior to the beginnings of US Government-backed notes, coins were struck to necessitate commerce. As the price of the underlying metal would rise and fall in the open market coins were hoarded or melted. Before our government was established in 1776, paper notes were printed by a number of the early Colonies and by the fledgling Continental Congress.
From about 1810 until the 1860s, paper money was printed by banks, the majority of which went bankrupt or were taken over. These notes are called Broken Bank Notes or Obsoletes.
When the Civil War began in 1861, both the Union and Confederate governments issued their own paper currency to pay the costs of the war including payments to their troops. As the Civil War wound down, very little coinage was left in circulation, so paper money had to be used. Confederate notes by 1864 had become fairly worthless and their value didn’t change for 100 years, until they became collectibles.
During and after the Civil War, small size notes of less than $1.00 in face value were used instead of coinage and to purchase items like postage stamps. These collectible notes are called Fractional Currency.
After the notes of the early 1860s the US government printed all types of notes with various backings – Treasury Notes, Silver Certificates, Gold Certificates, Legal Tender Notes, National Bank Notes, Federal Reserve Notes, and Federal Reserve Bank Notes. All of these notes were different in design, style and how they were backed.
In 1928, the actual size of the bank notes in use, were reduced to the size that we know and appreciate today. The notes were typically printed in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000 denominations. A limited number of $5,000 and $10,00 certificates were also printed but primarily used as payment between banks. They are exceedingly rare and expensive today. The last of the $500 and $1,000 Federal Reserve Notes were printed up to the 1950s, but still bore the 1934 date. These “High Denomination” command a strong premium today.
Special World War II nots were printed with special markings in case the Japanese invaded the Hawaiian Islands or in case the Germans conquered and controlled all of North Africa. These specially printed notes could prohibit the conquering enemies from flooding the market with counterfeit US currency.