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The Unexpected Individuals Featured on American Currency

Before presidents were the standard, a variety of American figures could be found on our banknotes.

Twenty dollar bills, soon to be updated. (Photo: selbstfotografiert/CC BY-SA-3.0)

This week, the U.S. Treasury announced a number of changes to the banknotes’ designs, most prominently changing the face featured on the $20 bill from Andrew Jackson to Harriet Tubman. The makeover—the first change to the portraits featured on banknotes since 1928—incorporates numerous women and African-Americans from US history, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the currency overhaul seems novel to us, banknote portraiture has changed frequently enough that 53 individuals “central to US history” have been featured at one time or another, ranging from politicians to soldiers to inventors. We’ve highlighted a few of the more interesting selections below.

Running Antelope

The $5 “Chief Silver” Silver Certificate featuring Running Antelope. (Photo: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History/Public Domain)

Running Antelope was a leader of the Hunkpapa people and closely allied with Sitting Bull. He was the first—and so far, only—Native American featured on US paper currency, with his likeness used for the $5 silver certificate introduced in 1899. Allegedly, Running Antelope’s portrayal was less-than-ideal: some claim that the Hunkpapa chief’s headdress was too large to fit in the engraving used for the portrait, so it was swapped with a Pawnee headdress. The $5 silver certificates, which could be redeemed for silver coins or bullion, were circulated until 1928.

Samuel Morse and Robert Fulton

The $2 Silver Certificate, with Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse (l to r). (Photo: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History/Public Domain)

Yes, the namesake of Morse Code was once featured on US currency; specifically, the $2 silver certificate that began circulating in 1896. Morse’s invention of the electromagnetic telegraph—the first method of rapid long-distance communication—represented a great technological contribution to humankind, and one that the US Treasury apparently considered worth commemorating. Prior to his efforts to develop a telegraph network within the US, Morse had been a noted portrait painter; his portrait of President James Monroe still decorates the White House.

Pictured beside Morse is Robert Fulton, who invented the first practical submarine when he designed the Nautilus for Napoleon Bonaparte; presumably the Treasury found this very cool.

Martha Washington

The $1 Silver Certificate, with Martha Washington. (Photo: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History/Public Domain)

Until this week’s announcement, Martha Washington was the only woman ever featured on U.S. paper currency, with her portrait on the 1886-issued $1 silver certificate. When the note was redesigned in 1896, a portrait of Martha’s husband, George, was also included.

Salmon Chase

The very first $1 “greenaback” note, with Salmon P. Chase. (Photo: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History/Public Domain)

You might assume that all of the 53 individuals featured on US currency are names you’d immediately recognize. But some slightly more obscure figures snuck in too. Salmon Chase served as President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War, when the first “greenback” banknotes were introduced into circulation. Not one to eschew self-promotion, Chase selected himself to adorn the $1 bill introduced in 1862.

After Treasurer Francis Spinner and Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau Spencer Clark took Chase’s lead and had themselves placed on newly-invented fractional currency in 1873, the Treasury Department was legally barred from placing portraits of living people on any US currency.

In 1929, when US banknotes assumed the size and general appearance they possess today, the Treasury determined that U.S. Presidents “have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others” and were most appropriate for currency, with exceptions made for Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Salmon Chase.

In expanding the portraiture of U.S. paper currency to include notable American women and African-Americans, the Treasury has moved beyond this nearly-century-old notion that only Presidents should feature on our greenbacks, and created a currency with an appearance more reflective of our society and values.