An Extremely Brief History of Women on U.S. Paper Currency

Martha Washington.

National Journal
June 19, 2015, 8:34 a.m.

The Treas­ury De­part­ment’s an­nounce­ment this week that it will re­design the $10 bill to fea­ture a wo­man’s por­trait is his­tor­ic. When the new note is re­vealed in 2020, it will be the first time in more than 100 years a fe­male’s face has been honored on Amer­ica’s pa­per cur­rency.

The last time (es­sen­tially the only time) was dur­ing a stretch of years in the 1880s and 1890s, when Martha Wash­ing­ton — most fam­ous for be­ing the wife of George — ap­peared on a $1 sil­ver cer­ti­fic­ate.

The bill was is­sued in 1886 and was dis­con­tin­ued by the turn of the cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to the archives of The Wash­ing­ton Star, they were “prob­ably the pret­ti­est notes ever is­sued by the gov­ern­ment.” Martha’s por­trait, the pa­per noted, was “beau­ti­fully ex­ecuted.” See for your­self in the im­age above.

Today, ac­cord­ing to an­tique­money.com, these bills are worthy col­lect­ables, which fetch between $75 and $1,000, if “there are ab­so­lutely no folds” and if “the seal is bright red and the oth­er col­ors and pa­per are both crisp. An­tique Money ad­vises be­ing dis­cern­ing in eval­u­at­ing the bills: “At first glance, a lot of Marthas will look this way.”

(A search of his­tor­ic­al news­pa­per ac­counts does not re­veal why Mrs. Wash­ing­ton was chosen for the bill.)

The only oth­er time a wo­man has been fea­tured on U.S. pa­per cur­rency was in the 1860s, when Nat­ive Amer­ic­an Po­cahontas ap­peared on the back­side of a $20 bill (a lot of money then!). Wo­men have been more com­monly fea­tured on U.S. coins: the Susan B. An­thony dol­lar coin, the Sacagawea dol­lar coin, and Helen Keller’s ap­pear­ance on an Alabama spe­cial-is­sue quarter.

{{third­PartyEmbed type:an­im­atedgif source:ht­tp://www.an­tique­money.com/wp-con­tent/up­loads/2013/01/20-dol­lar-bill-013.jpg}}

It has been so long since a wo­man has been on pa­per cur­rency in the United States that we are now in an age where schol­ars de­bate wheth­er pa­per money should be phased out en­tirely. It’s one of our most vis­ible for­ums to hon­or a per­son’s memory. The Treas­ury is seek­ing pub­lic in­put on who to put on the new $10 bill. With more than 200 years of his­tory to sort through, it shouldn’t be too hard to find worthy can­did­ates.

Im­ages via An­tique­money.com

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