Did you know that there are 5 US currency bills that are no longer in circulation (technically – but we will get to that)? The now defunct denominations were  $500, $1000, $5000, $10,000, and even $100,000 (Wilson) US dollar bills. (They can be viewed at the Smithsonian.)

Money 1 Money 2 Wilson

These bills were printed between 1918 and 1945, which begs the question: in a time when most people could buy a months worth of groceries for less than $5,  a home cost $3500, and a typical salary was less than $2000 a year (if you had a job), why in the world would the US be printing bills as large as these? Seriously, I would think having anything larger than a $50 bill would be overkill. More interesting than this, is that back in those days money was still backed by gold, locked away in the US Bullion Depository in Fort Knox . So for that $100,000 bill to even be printed, the Federal Reserve presumably had to have that much available in gold. In the 1930s, 1 oz of gold was approximately $35, which means 1 bill would be backed by nearly 180lbs of gold!!! Today, 1 oz of gold is $1400, so the bill would require less than 5lbs ( womp womp).

Gold Bars in Fort Knox courtesy of Forbes.com

Gold Bars in Fort Knox
courtesy of Forbes.com

These large denomination bills were primarily used for government transactions (until electronic transfers made them obsolete), so the vast majority of the populace had never even laid eyes on them, and likely were ignorant of their existence. Most of these bills went out of circulation in the mid-20th century, but apparently some of them are still valid tender. So if you ever run across a $5000 bill, spend it… (or not, since it is worth way more than $5000 to a collector).

Incidentally, you can visit most US treasury locations (which can be arranged by your congressman), but Fort Knox is off limits. There is gold still housed there, despite the fact that we went off the gold standard in 1933.  You can also visit the US Bureau of Engraving in DC (and TX), to see how money is made, explore historical currency (it didn’t always look like today’s bills), and learn about anti-counterfeiting technology.