High Notes

October 2002 - February 2003

Money makes the world go 'round. It is an integral part of our everyday lives, serving as a medium of exchange, a unit of measure, a store of value, and a standard of deferred payment. Historically, societies have used furs, cowerie shells, beads, and even salt as currency. The ancient Greeks and Romans were among the first to issue coins, and the first use of paper money dates back to China circa A.D. 910. Today, paper money, coins, and debit cards are the most widely used forms of currency.

The notes featured in "High Notes" carry some of the highest denominations ever to appear on paper currency in the US and in countries around the world. Almost all of the non-US bank notes on exhibit are examples of inflationary currency issued during periods of economic and political instability. The history of high denomination currency in the US, however, is not related to inflation.

Congress authorized the US Treasury to issue paper money as an emergency measure to fund the war effort during the Civil War. These "greenbacks," originally issued in small and large denominations, were the first real national paper money in the US since the 18th century. In the years following the Civil War, the American economy was subject to boom and bust, but never rampant inflation, although there were constant debates during the latter part of the 19th century over how freely the US government should issue currency.

In 1934, the Federal Reserve issued the $100,000 gold certificate, on display outside Washington, D.C. for the first time in this exhibit, to transfer funds between its branch banks. Although the government ceased printing high denomination currency in 1945, notes in denominations up to $10,000 were issued through 1969.

Whether issued due to inflation, or for the convenience of banks and wealthy individuals, high denomination currency intrigues us all -- instantly conjuring up thoughts of what we would do if we had that $100,000 bill.