20 Facts About the Dollar Bill That Every American Should Know

What’s in your wallet will totally surprise you.

The $1 bill is one of the most familiar objects in the U.S., with George Washington's stern face gracing the front and the pyramid and eagle design on the back. But while we've carried this currency in our pockets since we started receiving an allowance, there are still many dollar bill facts you probably don't know. From its design quirks to its largely forgotten history, the dollar bill is actually full of surprises.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of an item you use every day and maybe even find out the answers to some questions you've always had. Here are 20 things you may not have known about the George Washingtons in your wallet. And for more fun facts, check out 100 Fascinating Facts You'll Want to Share with Everyone You Know.

The dollar bill hasn't changed in over 50 years.

line of rolled up dollar bills

The $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills have all been redesigned in the last decade or so, with the Federal Reserve adding color and watermarks to outsmart counterfeiters. But the dollar bill has remained unchanged since 1963. The reason why it's not been updated, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, is that this denomination "is infrequently counterfeited."

But another possible reason to take into account is likely the lobbying done by the vending-machine industry, which would have to redesign its machines to accommodate new bills should the current design get an overhaul.

"In God We Trust" wasn't always printed on the dollar.

white man's hands opening briefcase full of cash

The last change made to the dollar bill was the addition of the line, "In God We Trust," which was added in 1963. This phrase started to be included on all U.S. currency following a law passed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, making it the country's official motto. And for more info to help you ace your next trivia night, check out 55 Facts So Interesting You'll Kick Yourself for Not Knowing Them.

Neither was George Washington.

pile of several different types of U.S. paper currency

While we associate our nation's first president with the $1 bill, his was not actually the first face to appear on the currency. That honor went to Salmon P. Chase, whose face was on the country's first $1 note, which was issued in 1862, during the Civil War.

As Secretary of the Treasury at the time, Chase also happened to be the man who was designing the country's first bank notes. His vanity project lasted until 1869, the year George Washington took his place.

A different Washington once appeared on a different type of dollar.

small doll house surrounded by piles of coins

The first First Lady, Martha Washington, was one of the faces of the $1 silver certificate. First printed in 1886, the certificates were backed by the U.S. government's silver deposits and featured an engraving of Martha based on her portrait by Charles Francois Jalabert. The silver certificates had a long run but were discontinued in 1957, though the last printing featuring Martha (this time with her husband) ran in 1896. To date, Martha Washington and Pocahontas are the only two women to have ever appeared on American paper currency.

It's not made of paper.

person's hands displaying one hundred dollar bills

We may call it "paper money," but the currency is actually composed of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen. According to the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, that material is delivered (with the exception of what's used for $100 bills) in loads of 20,000 sheets that are each painstakingly tracked. The various colors of ink used are mixed specially by the Bureau for reasons of security.

It costs 5.5 cents to produce a dollar.

person's hands holding out a jar of change

Not a bad return on investment: The Federal Reserve spends about 5.5 cents to produce every $1 bill (a much better deal than the 2.06 cents it costs to produce a penny). While the $2 bill carries the same price tag, the bills get costlier from there. The $5 bill costs 11.4 cents, the $10 costs 11.1 cents, and the $20 bill costs 11.5 cents to produce. And for more facts about coins and bills, check out Why Quarters Have Ridges—And Other Amazing Money Facts.

It falls out of circulation in less than six years.

pile of international paper currency

According to the Federal Reserve, a dollar falls out of circulation on average about every 5.8 years. That's more frequent than the average $20 bill (7.9 years), $50 bill (8.5 years), and $100 bill (15 years)—but less frequent than the $5 bill (5.5 years) and $10 bill (4.5 years). And for some mood-boosting trivia, check out 50 Feel-Good Facts to Cure Quarantine Boredom

It has its detractors.

jar filled with change labeled "save"

Because of the cost and need to frequently reprint the heavily circulated $1 bills, it has acquired some powerful enemies. In 2013, a group of five senators, including Arizona's John McCain and Iowa's Tom Harkin, united behind an effort to switch to a $1 coin, as reported by USA Today. According to the senators and consumer advocates supporting them, such a shift would save the government $13.8 billion over three decades. But for various reasons (the vending-machine lobby prominent among them), the effort went nowhere.

You can track your dollar.

man's hands pulling one hundred dollar bill out of wallet

You can see where your dollar has been and where it's going by using the site Where's George. Just enter the serial number of the dollar in your wallet, and you can find out what zip codes it's passed through to get to you and keep an eye on where it heads after you spend it.

The pyramid on the dollar bill represents the young country.

close up on pyramid on the back of a dollar bill

The pyramid on the back of the bill represents the young United States, with 13 steps representing the original 13 colonies, and an unfinished top reflecting the growing and expanding the country still had to do. The "Eye of Providence" at the top represents an all-seeing god—but not, as some conspiracy theorists would tell you, the Illuminati. And for more fascinating facts, check out 100 Totally Useless Facts That Are Too Entertaining for Words.

The eagle represents war and peace.

american bald eagle landing on a mossy rock with water in the background

The eagle on the back of the dollar bill is meant to convey both war and peace, with arrows held in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon.

The number 13 is everywhere.

black man's hands filling out financial paperwork with a stack of money in front of him

We already mentioned the 13 steps on the pyramid, but look further and you'll see that the number 13 pops up in a few other places on the currency. There are 13 arrows in the eagle's talon as well as 13 stripes and 13 stars on the Great Seal.

Bigger bills are much harder to come by.

man in suit holding a fanned out stack of dollar bills to the camera

Decades ago, the Federal Reserve Board printed currency in denominations of $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000. These were primarily used for bank transfer payments, which became unnecessary after more advanced (and secure) ways of transferring money were introduced. Production ceased on these big bills during World War II, and in 1969, the Secretary of the Treasury announced that the department would stop distributing the currency.

They are still legal tender, but you might want to hold on to them if you come into possession of them—there are just a few hundred $5,000 and $10,000 bills in existence.

The U.S. once produced $100,000 bills.

stacks of one hundred dollar bills

The largest denomination of official U.S. currency ever printed was the $100,000 Series 1934 Gold Certificate. Featuring a portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, these notes were printed from Dec. 1934 to Jan. 1935 and were mainly used for official transactions between Federal Reserve Banks—so it was unlikely that a member of the general public would get their hands on one. (Despite rumors to the contrary, the Treasury Department never produced a $1 million currency note.)

There are 12.4 billion dollar bills in circulation.

clear jar stuffed with one hundred dollar bills

According to the Federal Reserve's latest calculations from 2019, there are a total of 43.4 billion bills circulating in the United States. That breaks down roughly as the following:

  • 12.4 billion $1 bills
  • 1.3 billion $2 bills
  • 3.1 billion $5 bills
  • 2.0 billion $10 bills
  • 9.4 billion $20 bills
  • 1.8 billion $50 bills
  • 13.4 billion $100 bills

It takes a lot to tear them.

four clear jars labeled house, car, education, and travel, stuffed with dollars

According to CNBC, you would have to fold a bill back-and-forth about 4,000 times before it actually tears. While that may sound like a lot, for dollar bills, that threshold is reached within about 22 months, the Federal Reserve reports.

And you can still use them when they're torn.

white hands tearing a one hundred dollar bill

But if you do happen to tear a bill, it's still OK to use it. As long as three-quarters of a bill is intact, it can be exchanged for a whole bill. If it's torn in half, as long as the serial number matches on both sides, it can be used. If it's badly mutilated, you can actually send the bill to the Mutilated Currency Division of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where it is reviewed and often replaced (the group deals with about 30,000 claims a year).

A star on a dollar bill means it's a replacement.

assorted paper currency

A "star" on a bill means it's a replacement for one with an error. When an imperfection is detected on a bill after a serial number has already been overprinted, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing replaces it with a "star note" before it goes into circulation. A star note is a note with the same serial number with an asterisk added to the end of it. These bills are more scarce than notes with traditional serial numbers, but carry the exact same value as any other dollar.

One dollar detail has inspired decades of conspiracy theories.

out of focus woman holding up crumpled dollar bill to the camera

If you look closely at the frame surrounding the numeral "1" at the top right corner of the dollar bill, you may spot what appears to be a small bird or owl peeking out from the top left. Some have guessed that it represents Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, whose sacred bird was the owl and who is a common figure in Illuminati conspiracy theories. Others argue that it is actually a small spider, partly because of the webbed design that surrounds it. This has also inspired wide-ranging conspiracy theories.

None of these guesses have ever been confirmed, however. In reality, the unidentified design is likely just a quirk of the pattern.

They're full of bacteria and other gross things.

several hands touching in the middle of a circle

Changing so many hands, it's probably no surprise that dollar bills are not the cleanest objects. A 2017 study published by PLOS One found 100 different strains of bacteria on the dollar bills tested, in addition to viruses, pet DNA, and other materials. No wonder people are being cautious about handling cash during the coronavirus pandemic.


Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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