The very first $2 notes were Continental Currency, issued in 1776 as bills of credit for the defense of the new country. It wasn’t paper money like we know it — they looked like this:
The first two-dollar bills in a more modern sense were the “greenbacks” first issued by the Federal government back in 1861, when the country was in the early part of the Civil War. (All of the currency issued since then is valid, by the way.) Those bills looked something like this $1 bill:
The two-buck bill has had a checkered history ever since. It was even discontinued for a while back in 1966 (which you can read about below), but it made a comeback 10 years later as a cost-saving measure by the Treasury Department.
While not circulated in numbers even remotely approaching their $1 and $5 cousins, there were 1.2 billion $2 notes floating around as of 2017.
Even if the public as a whole doesn’t like the seemingly-fake cash note that is real legal tender, the $2 bill is popular with collectors — some of which seem to also be banking on them becoming super-rare and worth more than their face value.
$2 bill facts & trivia
From the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (2023)
💰 Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), pictured on the face of the 1862 $2 United States Note, was one of the Founding Fathers, and served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795.
💰 For most of their history, $2 notes have been unpopular, being viewed as unlucky or simply awkward to use in cash exchanges.
💰 From 1928 until 1976, the back of the $2 featured a vignette of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
💰 $2 notes were often returned to the Treasury with corners torn off, making them mutilated currency and unfit for reissue.
💰 The fortunes of the $2 note were reversed with the entry of the US into World War II. In early 1942, the Treasury forbade the carrying of US currency across the Mexican-US border. The Treasury did this “to prevent use being made of Mexico as a place in which Axis agents may dispose of dollar currency looted abroad.” The only exceptions to this blockade were $2 notes and silver dollars, as it was believed that there were not many of these items outside the United States. As a result, demand for $2 notes skyrocketed along the border.
💰 The $2 Federal Reserve Note, Series 1976, was introduced in celebration of the United States’ bicentennial.
💰 The vignette on the back of the series 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note is based on the painting “Declaration of Independence“, by John Trumbull. (Though the original painting has 47 men, there was only room for 42 of them to appear on the bill.)
From 1964: The $2 bill making a comeback
By Sylvia Porter – The Central New Jersey Home News (New Jersey) Feb 27, 1964
The $2 bill, among the most maligned and rarest denominations of paper currency, is on the way back. The U.S. Treasury is launching a major campaign to revive and circulate the $2 bill as potentially the most useful of any denomination in use today.
Next time you buy something, note the amount you lay on the counter. Chances are it’s $1.49 or $1.75 or $1.98 — rather than less than a dollar.
“In the modern economy,” says U.S. Treasurer Mrs. Kathryn O’Hay Granahan, “and especially in retail trade, so many items are prices at a dollar and a fraction that it just makes more common sense to give one bill than to use two one-dollar bills.”
But common sense is not the most important reason for the Treasury’s move. The main reason is printing expense. It costs one cent to print either a $1 or $2 bill. So obviously printing costs would be cut in half for every $2 bill printed in place of a one.
That can mount into big-time money, considering the fact that the Treasury prints 4.6 million $1 bills every day and the lifespan of the $1 bill is only 18 months.
Saving on printing
As an illustration, just by withdrawing 500 million $1 bills — a fraction of the number now circulating — and printing 250 million $2 bills to take their place, printing costs would be reduced in one-shot by $2,500,000. “That’s a tidy sum,” says economy-minded Mrs. Granahan, “even in this age of $100 billion budgets.”
The big problems are, of course, convincing the nation of the $2 bill’s usefulness and exploding the superstition surrounding it as of today.
Whenever a military base floods a town with $2 bills to dramatize the stimulating impact of the base on the local economy, the bills invariably disappear within days into bank vaults, Presumably to remove the “hex,” some people even tear off the corners of the bills (a Federal offense, incidentally).
But actually, the Treasury’s tests show that most of us are not superstitious and most of us would welcome back the $2 bill. The fact is, says the Treasury, that each of us says, “I’m not superstitious, but everybody else is.”
Banks which today “rubber band” $2 bills do so in deference to just a few superstitious customers. “But for every person out of 100 who might turn in a $2 bill to the teller in exchange for two $1 bills, the other 99 will probably keep them and delight in their use.”
As for the argument that the $2 bill looks too much like the $1, that’s ridiculous, the Treasury retorts. The $2 bill’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson is as different from the $1 bill’s George Washington as the $5’s Lincoln is from the $10’s Hamilton.
In Mrs. Granahan’s opinion. the $2 bill is “one of our most attractive pieces of currency.” In Canada, the $2 bill is among the most popular and widely circulated of all denominations.
Admittedly, before the Treasury’s “concerted effort to circulate the $2 bill among the general public” can succeed, we’ll have to become accustomed to using them in a routine way.
In the Treasury’s words, “People behind cash registers across the country will not only have to get used to receiving the $2 bill, but, more important, get in the habit of giving it back as change. Bank tellers will have to get used to the idea of giving $2 bills in change instead of the $1 and the $5.”
ALSO SEE: How can you tell if $100 bills are real?
Few in circulation
Today in the US, there are only a picayune 52 million $2 bills in circulation compared with more than 1.7 billion of the $1 bills. Most of these $2 bills are just sitting in banks, tied up in rubber bands – and this denomination is truly a rarity in most areas.
But the Treasury is only waiting for a nod from the nation’s banks and citizens to move into full-scale production.
And budget considerations aside, comments Mrs. Granahan, “Next to a dog on a leash, the $2 bill is about the easiest way to begin a conversation.”
End of the road for the $2 bill
US News and World Report – August 22, 1966
Now the $2 bill — the only kind of money that is unpopular — is on the way out.
The Treasury Department announced on August 10 that because of a “lack of public demand,” no more $2 bills will be printed.
Many persons consider the $2 bill unlucky. One possible explanation heard is that some politicians, back in the nineteenth century, paid $2 for votes, and it was said that a man with a “deuce” was suspected of having sold his vote.
Another reason for unpopularity: Merchants disliked the bill because there was no special chamber for them in cash registers and clerks sometimes gave them by mistake for $1 bills.
For years, race tracks, where the minimum wager is $2, were the last strongholds of the bill. Superstitious horse players attempted to “beat the whammy” by tearing off a corner of the bill.
The last printing of $2 bills was in May, 1965. Those now in circulation add up to 139.3 million dollars, about one third of 1 percent of total US paper currency. The $2 bills will continue to be circulated as long as the supply lasts.
The average life of a $2 bill is about six years. Bills in $1 and $5 denominations wear out in 18 to 20 months. Treasury officials said that they wouldn’t be surprised if the fade-out announcement stirred a demand for the bills as collector’s items.
The first $2 notes were issued in 1776, when 49,000 were printed as “bills of credit for the defense of America.” There was a lapse then until the Civil War. An act of Congress in 1862 has been authority for issuance of $2 bills ever since.