Growing up, I saw one $2 bill, and I never saw another one. I wondered why $2 bills were so rare, and so I did some digging on the complete history behind the $2 bill, and why it’s so lacking in circulation right now. I thought they just weren’t printed much, and these days, I barely use cash, besides when I go to the barber shop. The only bills I ever have in my wallet are the $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills. I never have $50 or $100 bills — first, it makes me paranoid, and second, it’s always a hassle for a cashier to check if it’s real. But the $2 bill is a complete afterthought.
According to Hannah Keyser in Mental Floss, the $2 bill was first printed in 1862, the year after the U.S. Treasury started printing money. Initially, the $2 bill featured Alexander Hamilton, but in 1869, Hamilton was replaced by Thomas Jefferson, who is the face on the $2 bill today. Paper money, however, took a long time to catch on, and according to John Bennardo, the producer and director of a film called The $2 Bill Documentary, most people made less than $15 a month before 1900. And then in 1929, there was the Great Depression.
“This was a time when our country did not have much wealth, and a lot of things cost less than a dollar…So the $2 bill really didn’t have much of a practical use,” Bennardo says.
As a result, the $2 bill started having weird uses even after the Great Depression ended. According to Bennardo, politicians started using the $2 bill to bribe people for votes, and the bill started being used for bribery. In addition, it was also a bill used for prostitution and gambling.
Due to inflation, the value of the $1 and the $2 bill started growing closer together, and Bennardo uses the analogy of having a $25 bill. Most people wouldn’t use both the $20 bill and the $25 bill, so most people didn’t see much use in the $2 bill. The $2 bill would go discontinued in 1966.
Before 1928, the $2 bill was printed as a large size bill, which was approximately 189 x 79mm. However, after 1928, the currency changed to a smaller size of 156 x 66mm, which is the current size of all U.S. currency.
In 1975, Secretary of the Treasury, William E. Simon, announced the $2 bill would have a renaissance. It was actually cheaper to make a $2 bill than to make a $1 bill, and the Treasury decided to make remake the bill on April 13, 1976, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The bill looked nice, with a picture of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back — made by John Trumbull.
That led the bill to start to be a collector’s item for a small subset of people. The $2 bill didn’t catch on, but many people started to keep them and collect them. Keyser reports a reluctance to spend the $2 bill in the first place that makes printing rare.
However, $2 bills can still be requested at banks and are still printed occasionally. Heather McCabe speculates that the $2 bill doesn’t catch on because cash registers don’t have a slot for them.
“As long as that’s the case, the $2 bill will be a cash outcast,” McCabe says.
However, she separates the history of the bill pre-1966, before it was discontinued, and post-1976, when it was re-introduced. The more collectible $2 bills, ironically, are the post-1976 bills. These new bills could be taken to the post office to get stamped with a postage stamp and a rubber cancellation stamp, so they seemed special. One $2 bill has a JFK postage stamp for its cancellation.
Otherwise, the pre-1966 bill is simply more difficult to use and raises questions for people when they try to use it. The solution to getting more people to use the $2 bill, and saving the government a lot of money in the process, is to make it easier to use.
Still, there is a small subset of people in the population dedicating themselves to keeping the $2 bill alive. The Federal Reserve still prints the bill as a result, and Bennardo says using $2 bills is often a way to be remembered when you’re tipping waiters and waitresses. Since the Federal Reserve tracks data on supply and demand, they give the data to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the government office that makes the money.
The biggest piece of tracking data the Federal Reserve relies on is “destruction,” whether the money you give to the bank is fit enough to be put back in circulation. A folded up, crumbled, and worn out bill often is considered destroyed, and a new bill will have to replace it. The Federal Reserve uses a special machine to test the fitness of the bill, first to see if the bill is real, and then to see if it’s fit enough.
$2 bills are destroyed at a much lower rate than $1 bills. Bennardo says the average shelf life of a $1 bill is 18 months, but the average lifespan of a $2 bill is six years because people generally don’t use them.
McCabe is one of the people who is trying to give the $2 bill a comeback. Chadwick Moore at the New York Times reports on McCabe being rejected at a bowling alley, being told to pay with something else at a bar, and being solicited by people who want to buy her bills. As of 2014, the Federal Reserve said the $2 bill only made up 3% of the total volume of notes. There were 1 billion $2 bills in circulation, while there are about 10 billion $1 and $100 bills in circulation, making those two bills the most plentiful.
McCabe even runs a blog dedicated solely to “revitalizing the $2 bill through everyday use”: Two Buckaroo. As a writer and copy editor, she wants to revitalize the bills not through saving them but spending them.
Another man, Matthew Zaklad, uses about 7,000 $2 bills each year, with a goal of “creat[ing] meaningful interactions in otherwise mundane encounters.” Zaklad said he once covered his $400 rent entirely with $2 bills, and he once paid for dinner with 200 $2 bills. For Zaklad, it’s just a means of triggering memories of his childhood and having meaningful human interaction.
However, not everyone likes the $2 bill, according to Zaklad, because of Thomas Jefferson’s notorious association with slavery.
At least the $2 bill is still in circulation, unlike the $1,000 bill. According to Janet Nguyen at Marketplace, if you take a $1,000 bill to a bank, you could cash it in for credit, but the bank would have to send it to the Federal Reserve. After they went out of circulation in the early 1970s, people started collecting them, and now most $1,000 bills are worth much more than $1,000. The standard value for a generic $1,000 bill is around $1,600.
The 1917 legal tender note of the $2 bill, a large size $2 bill, sells for around $40 as a collector’s item. The version has a red seal on the bottom right and is the most common large size bill.
The most heart-wrenching, personal story of someone who collects and spends $2 bills is that of Myrta Gschaar, a woman whose husband proposed to her in the late 1980s using a $2 bill. It was the second marriage for both and a second chance at happiness. Robert Gschaar did not have an engagement ring, so he decided to give one $2 bill to her and keep one for himself.
“He explained that as long as they carried these twos, they would be united,” Chadwick writes.
During the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Robert Gschaar was working at the Aon insurance company in the south tower. The north tower was hit first at 8:46 a.m., and Gschaar called his wife in the morning to tell her he was safe in the south tower. He was leaving the building and would call from the street. The south tower was hit at 9:03 a.m., and no second call ever came to her.
However, Myrta Gschaar never had evidence of her husband’s death. But three or four years after 2001, a special property recovery unit told her it had items she would want. It had her husband’s wallet and a $2 bill inside, confirming it was her husband. Jan Seidler Ramirez, the chief curator at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, said the bill was “what she needed to accept his death.”
To the memorial, Gschaar donated her husband’s wedding ring that was recovered. But she kept the $2 bill, telling Ramirez:
“I don’t need it anymore. I’m eternally wed to him. I want it to be with the $2 bill.”
Originally published at Frame of Reference on January 4th, 2020.