A couple of weeks ago I wrote a rather lengthy post on the history of “In God We Trust” on US coins and paper money. I ended up giving short shrift to the paper money, and as I researched paper money some more I found out the history is a lot more complex than I thought.
Some Background on US Paper Money
I am going to be discussing paper money as it existed in the 1950s and 1960s. Some statements I make about the designs are no longer true since we went to the larger portrait notes and then went to the colored backgrounds in the 1990s and 2000s. So bear in mind I am describing older-style notes in this background information.
The date on a specimen of paper money at the time of interest generally showed up to the right of the portrait, near the bottom of the note, above where the denomination is written out in words. It generally states “Series 1953 B” or something similar to that–as I write this I am looking at a $5 United States Note of that series. But that does not mean the note was actually produced that year. Generally the Series date denoted a design change to the note; and letter suffixes would be added when they changed the signatures on the note. The signatures are of the US Treasurer (left of the portrait) and the Secretary of the Treasury (right of the portrait), together they are referred to as a signature pair. So continuing with the “Series 1953 B” example, the signatures were Elizabeth Russel Smith (Treasurer) and C. Douglas Dillon (Secretary of the Treasury) on the $5 US Note, series 1953 B. Some quick internet research though will show that Dillon was John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Treasury–which means the note cannot have been actually printed before January 20, 1961! What we find with a lot more research (here, for example) is a range of delivery dates for the notes, and it turns out that Series 1953 B $5 US Notes were delivered between March 28, 1961 and April 25, 1962. You can find out whose signatures were on different series of notes here.
So dates on paper money can be misleading. This is true today, though series dates seem to change more frequently now; letter suffixes are rare (and on some denominations the date has moved to the lower left of the note).
There’s another aspect to paper money of the 1950s and 1960s that is much more alien to us today. Back then, there were three distinct types of paper money. They looked a lot alike, but there would be different verbiage in the small print if you inspected the notes closely enough. (For example at the top of the note, it would say “United States Note” or “Silver Certificate” instead of “Federal Reserve Note.”) Serial numbers and seals were the most obvious differences; the colored parts on the face would be different colors. There have been many distinct types of paper money issued under federal authority throughout history, but I’ll spare you the five that were not around during the 1950s and 60s.
Here is an image of a $5 bill of each of the three types. (It’s a US Secret Service link, so I am pretty sure it’s legal!)
1. The Federal Reserve Note. This is the kind that exists today. It’s issued by the Federal Reserve and back then bore a black seal to the left of the portrait with a large letter in it (denoting which region of the Fed issued the note), and has green serial number and treasury seal.
2. The United States Note. This was issued directly by the US Government, and had existed since the Civil War. These were the original “greenback.” They were starting to fade out of existence at this time, and by the 1970s the notes that were required by law to be issued were for the most part simply being stuffed in a vault and deemed to have been circulated. That law was repealed in 1971 since it was pointless anyway. The notes have some verbiage overlaying a large numeral for the denomination where the FRN has the black seal. The serial numbers and treasury seal were red.
3. Silver Certificates. These were directly backed by silver in the US Treasury. They looked a lot like US Notes, but the “fine print” at the top of the note (above “The United States Of America”) reads “This certifies that there is on deposit in the treasury of”. Below the denomination it read “in silver payable to the bearer on demand.” (If you assemble the whole statement, it reads “This certifies that there is on deposit in the treasury of the United States of America One Dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”) You could exchange these for actual silver coinage freely. (Of course you could do that with all the notes, back then; we still had silver coinage.) The serial numbers and treasury seals were in dark blue.
So that’s the end of the “background.” Now for the meat of this.
[note: I received a comment with some of the back story behind this. Here is the relevant portion of the comment.
My family has a letter from a descendent [sic–ancestor] of mine, Arthur Elmer Derby, that was written to Senator Norris Cotton in 1955 stating that since the motto “In God We Trust” had been on silver coins that it should also be engraved on the one-dollar bill (since it was in fact a silver certificate). Senator Cotton took the letter to congress and on July 30, 1956 it came to fruition.
The Eisenhower administration. There was no such thing as a $1 Federal Reserve Note (!), but there are $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes being produced and circulated (Series 1950A, later in 1957 Series 1950B came out). All $1 notes are silver certificates (Series 1935 E), but there are also $5 and $10 silver certificates (Series 1953). There are $2 and $5 United States Notes (also Series 1953) to complete quite a patchwork of notes. The signature pair was Priest/Humphrey
At this time the Bureau of Engraving and Printing brought in a new high-speed printing press. And Congress passed a law requiring In God We Trust to be put on the paper money, as soon as it was practical to do so.
Not much happened, except that the new press was used to print a new series of $1 silver certificates. Series 1957 bore the “In God We Trust” motto, and the signature pair was Priest/Anderson–Anderson was the new Secretary of the Treasury.
But other presses continued to churn out Series 1935 E $1 silver certificates, and all other denominations and types of notes were completely unaffected. Around the end of the year, all notes transitioned to Priest/Anderson signature pairs. Federal Reserve Notes (green) went from Series 1950A to 1950B, United States Notes (red) went from 1953 to 1953A, and the $5 and $10 silver certificates (blue) went from 1953 to 1953 A. In none of these cases was “In God We Trust” added. But the surprising thing is, that the Series 1935 E silver certificate became Series 1935 F even though there was also a Series 1957 being printed. And Series 1935 F did not have the motto on it either!
It is clear that the treasury was waiting for a major design change before switching to the motto; a mere signature pair change was not enough.
In any case it is not true that as of 1957, all US paper money bore In God We Trust on it. Most of it did not. (To be sure most statements about this do not include the word “all,” so no one is lying… but the inference is often drawn nonetheless.)
Kennedy and Johnson Finish the Job
“Godless” silver certificates (in all denominations!), United States Notes and Federal Reserve notes continued to be printed through the end of the Eisenhower administration and even through the Kennedy Administration. Until 1962, the Series 1957 $1 silver certificate was the sole note that bore the motto.
By 1962, the Series 1935 $1 silver certificates were up to letter G (Smith/Dillon). At the end of March, for some reason, the motto was added to the reverse of this note, but the series remained 1935G. There was eventually a 1935 H (Granahan/Dillon), from June to October of 1963. The 1957 series (with motto) continued to be produced and got up to Series 1957 B (Granahan/Dillon) in November of 1963. Meanwhile the $5 and $10 silver certificates got up to Series 1953 C (Granahan/Dillon) and B (Smith/Dillon), respectively, with deliveries ending in August 1964 and March 1962, again respectively. At this point the silver certificates were discontinued.
Note that among silver certificates, only the $1 ever bore the motto, and only Series 1957 – 1957B and 1935 G (some of them) through H. Note that the dates on these could mislead someone into thinking that the changeover could have occurred before the 1957 series came out; but the truth is that 1935 G and H notes came out after Series 1957 did. Looking at who signed them, and wiki-ing the names will prove that there was chronological overlap between the 1935 and 1957 series.
United States Notes continued to be issued, now through Series 1953 C (Granahan/Dillon), almost to the end of 1963. At the beginning of 1964, Series 1963 (also Granahan/Dillon) was introduced for both the $2 and $5, with the motto on it. The $2 bill was discontinued later in 1964, but the $5 US note ran into 1967 as series 1963A (Granahan/Fowler). But there was a new Series 1966 $100 US Note (Granahan/Fowler), and even a 1966 A (Elston/Kennedy) with the motto. Those are the ones that mostly got put into a bank vault rather than being released into circulation. When those were discontinued, the United States Note was dead. So to summarize, early in 1964 the United States Notes series 1963 were released, and those were the first United States Notes to bear the motto. The last United States Note without the motto came out at the end of 1963. At least here there wasn’t this bizarre overlap that ran for five years like with the silver certificates.
1964 also saw the Federal Reserve note transition. First off, the $1 FRN was introduced as series 1963 (Granahan/Dillon), with motto. The $5, $10 and $20 also had Series 1963 introduced, at various times during 1964, all with the motto. The $50 and $100 did not have Series 1963. The signature pair changed in 1965 to Granahan/Fowler, and Series 1963 A came out, again with the motto. At this time, the $50 and $100 started to come out with the motto, but they were also labeled Series 1963 A for consistency with the $5, $10, and $20. But series 1950 notes, up to 1957 E, also continued to be issued for all denominations for $5 to $100, as late as September 16, 1968 for the $10. (195o D was Granahan/Dillon, 1950 E was Granhan/Fowler.) And these did not bear the motto! This is pretty much the same situation that existed for the $1 silver certificate, earlier, where two different series were being issued simultaneously. Fowler left office in October 1966, so clearly those notes released bearing his signature in 1967 and 1968 were “back stock,” so to speak.
So the whole truth is that the US Government began to issue “godly” $1 Silver Certificates in 1957, but not all such notes were made with the motto on them; only in 1962 did the government stop making “godless” $1 silver certificates. The US government did not issue any other kind of paper money with In God We Trust on it until 1964. And they didn’t stop issuing “godless” notes until 1968!