And we're talking American money here, not stupid rubles or seashells or whatever they trade in Russia.
This all started last Saturday night, as a bet between my friend Molly and I:
"Hey Molly!" I yelled, as a group of us stumbled our way drunkenly toward the bar. "I bet you don't know what the biggest United States currency bill is!"
Molly's and my conversations always start like this.
"Shut your stupid face!" yelled back Molly. "I do too. It's the five-hundred dollar bill!"
"I bet you a Pinkberry that it's not," I said. "There's nothing bigger than a hundred."
"Your face is stupid, and I'm going to slap it off," replied Molly. "You're on."
The best part about a bet like this is that in these tech-savvy days, one can just whip out their phone and immediately determine which of us would soon be suckling the sweet nectar that is Pinkberry. Actually, the best part about this bet was the way we picked the judge to decide who won: by just yelling out "Hey guys!" and whoever responded "What?" first was the judge. Our friend Naomi ended up getting job, probably because she didn't know better than to ignore Molly and me when we're yelling about stuff.
I admit I went into the bet with a bit of an unfair advantage: I was pretty sure I'd read somewhere that the government didn't dare make any bills bigger than a $100, for counterfeit reasons. But when we saw our phones, I was surprised at how close to wrong I was:
1) At one point there was a $500 bill, a $1,000 bill, a $5,000 bill, and a $10,000 bill.
Yes, the first thing I was shocked to learn was that although today the highest U.S. currency unit is indeed the hundred, there used to be a lot more baller bills out there. Just look at these bad boys, sporting William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, James Madison, and Salmon P. Chase (!?) respectively.
First of all, who the hell is Salmon P. Chase, and why does he get to be on a bill worth $127,000 today? A little more research revealed that Chase was actually a pretty big bad-ass - not only was he a Senator, Governor and U.S. Treasury Secretary, but he also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Oh, and he had a bank named after him. Alright, Chase, I'll step off.
2) There was also once a $100,000 bill, which would be worth 1.6 million dollars today. And guess who was on it. Woodrow Wilson.
Are you kidding me? Woody frickin' Wilson? Look, I know the guy was a decent president and all, but on maybe the highest value bill ever printed in the whole world, I would have expected someone a little more dramatic. Like Elvis. Or God.
Unfortunately, the $100,000 bill was only used for direct bank gold purchases, and was only briefly in circulation: in 1969 President Nixon ordered the halt of circulation for all high-denomination bills, in an attempt to combat organized crime. And thus, although I won the bet with Molly, I am now unsure if my dreams of slapping a bouncer in the face with a $100,000 bill will ever be realized.
3) On the other end of the spectrum, there was also once a 5-cent bill.
During the Civil War, people began hoarding coins because of their metal values, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing started printing bills for 50 cents, 25 cents, 5 cents and even 3 cents to fill the void. I couldn't find out what people were hoarding the coins for, but I hope it was for making guns that shot stacks of pennies at people, because what a great use of insult to injury. Though better than getting shot with Confederate dollars, I suppose.
4) At one point, the copper needed to make a penny cost more than a penny.
This obviously needed to change, lest we have hoards of homeless people roaming about collecting pennies to melt in giant vats to make copper wire and such. This is why pennies since 1982 are made of zinc, with thin coatings of copper.
Similar metal price-increases have also spurred changes with the silver in dimes and quarters; in fact, the only coin that has stayed the same (except for a brief period in WWII) is the nickel, because nickel is such a broke-ass metal.
For comparison, paper bills cost 3 cents to make, regardless of their denomination.
5) The special paper that money is printed on comes from only one paper company in Massachusetts.
Oh, and it gets shipped to the mints in an armored car.
It's illegal to have any of this paper, even for non-counterfeiting purposes like drawing paper for your kids, or folding really expensive origami swans.
Bonus Stupid Fact:
(because I love you so much, and because the first two were kinda the same fact)
The most commonly counterfeited made-up bills are the $3 bill, the $200 bill, the $22 bill, and the $1,000,000 bill.
The $22 bill was entirely made up by this numberologist street-entertainer in Florida who changed his name to Love-22 and is trying to run for President. He has twice been arrested for counterfeiting, but both times gotten off on the grounds that "since there is no such thing as a 22 dollar bill, it is impossible to counterfeit what doesn't exist".