By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
- What are the design elements on the front of a dollar bill, and what do they mean?
- How do serial numbers work?
- How are the designs of coins and paper money different?
- What do collectors look for when buying notes for their collections?
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A lot of information is presented in a very small space on a coin.
Visually, it is the artistic design that we remember when we think about a particular coin type. But in order to fulfill its functions as money, bullion, or propaganda, a coin must convey specific information, often in the form of inscriptions. This information may include but is not limited to: the issuing authority or country of origin; the weight and fineness of precious metals; the date; the denomination or face value; and miscellaneous mottoes and legends with cultural or political significance.
Paper money needs to convey much of the same information because it serves many of the same functions. But because of its size–and because of the difference in production methods–paper money also features information that can’t fit on or simply doesn’t apply to coins. In this primer, we will examine the information that can be found on the front of an average, everyday dollar bill and explain what all of the numbers, letters, and signatures mean.
A Tour of the Dollar Bill
Above is a close-up of a Series 2009 $1 Federal Reserve Note. Taken as a whole, the dollar bill is an iconic image in its own right, having been issued in more or less its current form since 1963.
But the eye quickly begins to break it down into several larger design elements that are more prominent. The easiest and quickest element to “read” on the dollar is arguably the central portrait of President George Washington. Based on an unfinished portrait by American painter Gilbert Stuart, a version of it has been on the dollar bill since 1869.
Going back to the top, we see the phrase FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE, which designates the type of currency note the bill is and therefore how it is made, distributed, and (most importantly) backed. In the case of a Federal Reserve Note, bills are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which is part of the Treasury Department . The BEP then distributes the notes to the 12 regional branches of the Federal Reserve Bank (more below), which then fill orders from regular banks. These banks then fill orders from local businesses or issue new money directly to the public via ATMs, account withdrawals, or in change. As fiat currency, Federal Reserve Notes are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States, and their purchasing power has been determined by a floating market exchange rate since President Richard M. Nixon took the dollar off of the gold standard in 1971.
Immediately beneath the type designation in larger black letters is the legend THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which identifies the note’s issuing authority – i.e., the country whose “full faith and credit” generates the value of the money.
Below George Washington is the denomination ONE DOLLAR.
All three of these phrases are printed in what’s known as “Banknote Roman“. Not really a font (since no metal typeset is involved in its printing), new engravers at the BEP must learn how to render the alphabet in this style by hand. This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation of U.S. note designers since the 19th century.
And while we’re at it, the decorative filigree or lacework filling in the background of the borders and corners of the bill’s printed area is called guilloché, a term derived from jewelry and metalworking. Guilloché has long been used as an anti-counterfeiting measure on printed material that requires a high degree of security – but the security features of modern paper money are beyond the scope of this primer and may be addressed in a future article. Nevertheless, brief mention must be made of the “spider” or “owl” hanging out on the enclosure surrounding the 1 in the upper right corner, just to the right of the olive branch.
The large numeral 1 found in each corner of the dollar bill (for a total of four) denotes its $1 denomination. An alphanumeric code identifying the individual face plate used to print the front of the note (on the example above, we have E133) can be found in the lower right corner near one of these numbers. On some bills, the BEP facility that produced the note is also represented; for example, the Fort Worth, Texas printing facility would be represented by an “FW” in front of the face plate identifier. This is almost like a mint mark on a coin, if mint marks also identified the specific die involved.
To the left of Washington and directly beneath THE UNITED is small print in capital sans serif letters that reads: THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE. This legal clause found on United States paper money is known as the obligation. In the past, the obligation was much longer and took up a greater amount of design space, but it was shortened to its present form in the 1930s. Most coins lack such phrasing due to spatial concerns, but smaller denominations like the cent have limits on their use as legal tender that further complicate the issue, anyway.
In the field below the obligation is the Seal of the Federal Reserve Bank and the branch from which the note originates. In the example above, the large letter B in the seal represents the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Similarly, the Seal of the Treasury Department in vivid green ink is overprinted on the word ONE, which is yet another representation of the bill’s denomination. The Treasury Seal features a heraldic-looking shield with a balance on top and a key on the bottom, with a chevron filled with 13 stars representing the original 13 colonies dividing the two. This simplified design, with English instead of Latin, has appeared on U.S. currency since Series 1969. WASHINGTON, D.C. is printed right above the seal.
Four Arabic numerals are arranged in a rectangle around the field; this is yet another way to designate the Federal Reserve Bank branch that issued the currency. In this case, the number 2 stands for New York.
To the left of the upper left numerical bank identifier is a printing plate position alphanumeric code (which on this example looks like it is E1). As of 2014, the BEP prints dollar bills on 50-note sheets. Ten rows are assigned the letters A through J, and five columns are assigned the numbers 1 through 5. The combined letter and number give you the coordinates for the position of your note in the uncut sheet.
Near the bottom of the bill, between ONE DOLLAR and the lower left corner, is the signature of the Treasurer of the United States. The Treasurer supervises the coin and currency production of the United States on behalf of the Treasury Department. In the picture above, the signature is that of Rosa Gumataotao “Rosie” Rios (in office 2009-2016), who was much loved by collectors for her engagement with the hobby.
Likewise, the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury is found in a corresponding location on the bottom right of the note; this bill features the signature of Timothy F. Geithner, Treasury Secretary under President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2013. Geithner was notoriously uninterested in numismatics.
To the left of the Treasury Secretary’s signature is the series date (here, it is SERIES 2009). A new date is assigned when either the Treasury Secretary approves an entirely new design or when a new Secretary of the Treasury necessitates the replacement of signatures. Sometimes smaller changes are made to a series’ design, and these are distinguished by a letter under the series date.
Saving the “best” for last, perhaps, we now come to the serial number.
Printed in the same vivid green ink as the Seal of the Treasury Department, the serial numbers on One and Two Dollar bills are presented in the same format: one letter followed by eight numerals and capped off by another letter. All Federal Reserve Notes featured this format until the Series 1995 redesign, in which the Five Dollar bill and higher denominations use two letters at the beginning.
The first letter represents the Federal Reserve Bank from whence the bill came and is the same as the letter found within the Seal mentioned previously. The following table lists the 12 bank branches and gives the corresponding letter and number designations found on a Federal Reserve Note.
The eight numbers in the middle run from 00000000 to 99999999, and the letter at the end runs from A to Y, excluding the letters O and Z because O looks too much like a zero and Z is used in test runs at the BEP. As the serial number turns over from 99999999 to 00000000, the next letter in the alphabet is used. When a new design/series is implemented, serial numbers revert to 00000000 and the letter A at the end regardless of where printing left off with the previous design.
But instead of a final letter, some notes have a star at the end of the serial number. The star means that there was a problem with a sheet of notes during production but after the serial number is overprinted. A sheet of “star notes” is then produced to replace the defective sheet and the regular sequence of serial numbers is resumed where the now-missing sheet would have left off. The star note system was developed to save time and money because re-establishing an unbroken sequence of serial numbers after a production problem interrupted it is way too time-consuming and expensive.
What Do Collectors Care About on the Dollar Bill?
Overall, paper money collectors prefer crisp, clean notes without tears, folds, or other visible forms of damage or wear. Collectors won’t turn down a rare note in lesser condition, necessarily, but all other things being equal, this is the default preference for acquisitions.
But to answer the question further, we browsed the auction archives at Stack’s Bowers Galleries and selected two high-value examples of the Series 2009 Federal Reserve Note pedigreed to the Wisconsin Collection that were offered in the Stack’s Bowers August 2023 Global Showcase Auction.
This Series 2009 Federal Reserve Note was sold on August 17, 2023, where it sold for $504. It has a “Ten Million” serial number (40,000,000 to be precise).
Dollar bills with low serial numbers, like the exceptionally low 00000009 note seen here, generate significant interest among collectors. Making this example more exciting is the matching B-B block letters. This example in Gem Uncirculated condition sold on August 17, 2023 for $1,020.
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