A $100,000 Bill? The Story Behind Large-Denomination Currency

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Your local convenience store may not accept bills larger than $20, but once upon a time you could have paid for your gum with a nice fresh $10,000 bill. What's the story behind the large-denomination bills that the government used to issue?

What big bills has the U.S. issued?

In 1928, the federal government overhauled its system of printing banknotes. It shaved about an inch of length and just under a half of an inch in width off the bills and issued the new smaller bills in the $1 to $100 denominations with which we're familiar. However, the Treasury also issued larger denominations. They featured William McKinley ($500), Grover Cleveland ($1,000), James Madison ($5,000), and Salmon P. Chase ($10,000).

Who the heck was Salmon P. Chase?

chase-10000

His name might not be as familiar as those of the presidents featured on the other big bills, but once upon a time Chase was a big wheel in American politics. Chase, a mid-19th century politician, served as Chief Justice of the United States, spent stints as Ohio's governor and senator, and was Lincoln's first Secretary of the Treasury.

Nice resume, but how did Chase end up on the $10,000 bill?

He was in the right place at the right time. When the federal government started issuing greenback notes in 1861, Chase, as Secretary of the Treasury, was in charge of designing and popularizing the new currency. The politically ambitious Chase had to pick a portrait subject for the first $1 bill, and he chose"¦Salmon P. Chase.

Although putting his face in everyone's pocketbooks never propelled Chase to the presidency, when the Treasury started issuing the new $10,000 bills in 1928 they put Chase's portrait on the obverse to honor the man who helped introduce modern banknotes.

Even if you don't have a $10,000 bill Chase's name might still be in your wallet. Chase National Bank, the forerunner to Chase Manhattan Bank, was named in his honor.

Why on earth was the government printing such giant bills in the first place?

Believe it or not, it wasn't just to save space in fatcats' wallets. When the Treasury started printing these giant bills, their main purpose was making transfer payments between banks and other financial institutions. Before sophisticated wire transfer systems were fully developed, it was apparently easier and safer just to fork over a $5,000 bill to settle up with a fellow bank. Once transfer technology became safer and more secure, there really wasn't much need for the big bills anymore.

What's the largest denomination of currency the U.S. has printed?

wilson-100-grand

That would be the Series 1934 $100,000 gold certificate. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing only made these notes during a three-week stretch during December 1934 and January 1935. Even the few plutocrats who had that much cash during the Depression couldn't carry one of the $100K bills, though. They were only used for official transactions between Federal Reserve Banks, and the Treasurer of the United States only issued them to Fed banks that had an equal amount of gold in the Treasury. The note featured a picture of Woodrow Wilson.

Are any of these bills left in circulation?

There sure are, but don't expect to find a $500 bill the next time you make an ATM withdrawal. The Treasury announced on July 14, 1969, that it would quit issuing the $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 notes immediately, since the bills were so sparsely circulated. It's not like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had to stop the presses, either; the bills hadn't seen an actual print run since 1945.

When the Treasury discontinued the bills, they rapidly fell out of circulation. However, a few are still lingering; as of May 2009, there were still 336 $10,000 bills at large. At the same time, Slate reported that there were also 342 $5,000 bills and 165,732 $1,000 bills still floating around.

If they're out of circulation, can you still spend them?

Although the Treasury is no longer issuing these bills, according to the Fed they're still legal tender. So yes, although it would probably raise some eyebrows, you could walk into Best Buy and plunk down a $1,000 bill to pay for a new plasma TV.

That wouldn't be the smartest move, though. Most of the high-denomination bills that are left in circulation are in collectors' safes, and at auction the bills tend to fetch prices that far exceed their face values. For instance, a pristine $10,000 bill can command a price as high as $140,000 on the open market.

What happens if you bring one of these big bills to a bank?

If you put it in your safety deposit box, your bill will be safe. Chase Bank actually acquired one of the $10,000 bills in its currency collection when a deceased customer's family found the bill in her deposit box and traded it for $10,000 in cash. Deposit the historical loot into your checking account, though, and it's bad news for the bill. You'll get the cash deposited in your account, but since the 1969 order to stop distributing these bills, Fed banks have been pulling the notes from circulation and destroying them whenever they are received.

Of course, there are other potential pitfalls to depositing a big bill, like blowing your cover when you're on the lam. Last February, three teenagers in Texas Township, Michigan, swiped one of their parents' safes and drove to Birmingham, Alabama, with their booty. Their downfall came when they tried to change an antique $1,000 bill from the safe at a bank. The police nabbed the thieves after a call from a suspicious teller.

So there was never a real $1 million bill?

Nope, but that doesn't mean that people haven't tried to make one. In 2004, a woman in Covington, Georgia, tried to pick up a $1,675 tab at a local Wal-Mart with a forged $1 million bill featuring a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Police quickly arrested her. It's hard to say what's more ludicrous: trying to pass off a million-dollar bill or thinking that Wal-Mart would just fork over $998,325 in change.

Someone gave me a fake $1 million bill as a joke. Was that illegal?

As long as you don't try to spend it or deposit it, you're in the clear. Gag makers and some religious and political groups have printed novelty $1 million bills for decades. In 1982, these novelty bills came to the attention of the Secret Service, which ruled that since there wasn't a real $1 million bill, these joke versions weren't technically forgeries or violations of any laws.

What about the opposite of these bills: the elusive $2 bill?

Although you don't see the $2 bill all that often, it's still a circulating denomination of American currency. According the U.S. Treasury, there are over $1.5 billion worth of $2 bills currently circulating around the world. However, since the bill changes hands less frequently than other denominations, it's not printed as often, either.

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images
Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images

As of February 2020, more than 1000 individuals had registered to run for president in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, though you've probably only ever heard a fraction of their names. But as Election Day looms closer, and the state primaries continue to decide the frontrunners, more of the most visible candidates will officially bow out of the election. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

Here's What Happens to New Cars at a Dealership That Don't Get Sold

welcomia/iStock via Getty Images
welcomia/iStock via Getty Images

It’s 2020, which means new car models have already started rolling into dealerships and taking their positions in gleaming showrooms. What happens to the “old” models, which fall into a gray area between not-quite-used and no longer new?

According to Reader’s Digest, brand-new cars that fail to find a forever home have a few different fates. One place they can’t go is back to the manufacturer: Once a dealer purchases an inventory of cars from, say, Toyota, the vehicles are theirs. Instead, dealers may look outside of their local market to see if there’s a demand for the make and model they have on hand. A two-door sedan might not have found a buyer in one town, but there might be someone else 50 miles away looking for one.

If they can’t find a buyer close to the retail price, they might consider offering the car at an employee discount—as much as 20 percent—to customers. They might also offer financing incentives to make the deal more attractive.

Dealers typically hang on to new cars for about two years. After that, they begin to grow concerned that customers might assume there’s something wrong with a vehicle that’s been loitering on the lot for so long. Once it finally loses that new car smell, it might go to a dealer auction, where buyers can pick up cars for resale. Some of the cars will wind up in smaller lots, where there’s no pressure to offer a fleet of brand-new models.

Auctions take a percentage of the sale, though, so dealers already discounting the car might take a loss. You might also see a nearly-new car used as a loaner for the dealer’s service department or sold to a rental car company.

One thing is for certain: Dealers don’t like having old model year cars on the property. Because of the need for discounts or other incentives, dealers spent an average of $1100 in incentives per vehicle in 2019 to move 2018 models out the door.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]

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