Today, with Paypal and Square, even the smallest merchants are connected to digital payment. Bitcoins are totally cyber. So discussing currency, especially denominations other than the greenback $20, might seem nostalgic. Numismatists, a.k.a. coin collectors, recognize long-obsolete denominations of money: Half-cent coins issued until 1857, large 2 cent coins during the Civil War, small antebellum silver 3 cent coins, and the short lived 20 cent coin of 1875-1876. The small print tells you that it isn’t a quarter. One-cent pieces (pre-1857) and dollars (pre-1979) used to be larger.
To compare then-and-now circulation of money, I like to use “Jurgis Rudkus” or NYC Subway Fare metric. It does not account for real changes in the price of goods. For example, the real cost of a New York City subway ride ($2.75 today) has doubled since opening in 1904. So the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s CPI calculator is better, when the internet is readily available. Jurgis’ boss might’ve had gilded age gold coins in $2.50 and larger denominations, at a time when laborers made a dollar per day. We know Jurgis, a laborer in the Chicago Stockyards, through Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Some denominations have fallen out of favor. Take the one-cent piece, or colloquially- the penny. Due to the percent tax and the psychological deception of $.99 pricing, we have been stuck with the penny. Sure, stores could choose to round down the purchase. In overseas shops using US currency, pennies; even nickels and dimes, are dropped. In Dubai, I saw the 1 dinar coin used as ersatz American quarters.
Half dollars are widely recognized at all classes of convenience stores, where cash is king. Exception is the shopettes on-base, which serve a straight-laced clientele. Elsewhere, the half dollar is not readily recognized, but most often accepted nonetheless. Their availability at banks is capricious, and the futility of using them in laundry, vending and other machines is frustrating.
Despite the US Mint’s best efforts, dollar coins are not the “hip new thing” millennials are clamoring for. If you use a silver-toned Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, make sure it’s not mistaken for a quarter. It was a short-lived series that immediately followed the Nixon-era large Eisenhower dollars. The Sacagawea gold-toned dollar coin fares better. They are the mainstay of mass transit machines, and circulate freely in downtown shops. To stir more interest in auto-centric areas, the US Mint concurrently introduced the Presidential Dollar Series. The Sacagawea series continued concurrently as her peoples’ sworn enemies Andrew Jackson, Zachary Tyler, and colleagues were commemorated in coin.
$2 bills are a popular Christmas gift. They are accepted on Hampton Roads Transit’s GFI fareboxes, a type that is used around the country. But many younger cashiers do not recognize the bill, even in entertainment-focused locales like San Juan.
$10 bills: Many stores do not stock these bills in cash registers at the start of shift. $5 bill became the workhorse of the economy. Where a seeming inefficiency is king, this orange hued bill is squeezed out by the $5 and $20 bills. I would also blame inflation, which makes $20 bills more easily broken by cashiers.
$50 bills: Due to inflation, these are now convenient for grocery shopping, dinner out, and oil changes for the car. Also issued by Navy Federal ATMs in high-priced countries like Bahrain. For all purposes, though, the larger “C Note” remains more popular.
$100 bills: A mainstay of the cash economy. In the cutthroat world of commercial shipping, if a sailor can’t deposit a paycheck immediately, he or she would prefer cold cash in hand. For those sailing on government ships backed by the full faith of Uncle Sam, the Benjamin is used for the seemingly contrary purposes of Western Union family remittances and entertainment. Overseas, it’s safer to carry cash than to trust an entertainment venue with a credit card. The Benjamin is also required when exchanging for local currencies in underdeveloped economies.
$500 bills (and larger): Banks have not issued them since 1969, a time when $500 could buy a new car. Yet, unlike deflated or obsolete European currencies, these big bills have not been demonetized. Thus the Federal Reserve keeps track of these large bills remaining in circulation, presumably in collectors’ hands and senior citizens’ safes.
Now have a happy new year!