First Dollar Bill
By Ken Zurski
In the summer of 1861, after the Battle of Bull Run disproved the theory that the Civil War would end quickly, U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time Salmon P. Chase turned to the option of paper money to help pay the Union soldiers. This included the first government-issued dollar bill.
A bill which looked much different than it does today.
The man on the front of the original dollar bill was Chase himself who did the honors of appointing his own likeness to the first “greenbacks” (named for the green ink used on the back, with black ink in front).
Chase was a political rival of Lincoln who became part of his cabinet, oftentimes disagreeing with the president and threatening to quit on numerous occasions until Lincoln diffused the matter – usually with a joke.
Gold and silver coins were popular, but at the onset of the Civil War, to help fund it, Congress authorized the issue of demand notes worth $5, $10 & $20. The notes could be redeemable by coin. The $1 bill soon followed.
Chase contributed to the design of the new dollar bill and having presidential aspirations himself thought his image on its face would help the cause. The fact that he ran the Treasury Department was a strong argument for inclusion.
Eventually, Chase was replaced by George Washington on the dollar bill.
But in 1928, more than 50 years after his death, Chase was honored again with his picture on the newly minted $10,000 bill. The big bills, like the $1,000 (Cleveland), $5,000 (Madison), and $10,000, were used mainly for transfers between banks. Even a $100,000 bill (Wilson), the largest single denomination ever, was printed in 1934 for this same purpose.
Although it went out of circulation, the $10,000 bill is still considered legal tender and banks would be glad to exchange it if collectors were crazy enough to pass on the market price which is ten times or more its face value.
The original $1 dollar bill, with Chase’s likeness, while not as rare, is still collectible. Mint condition bills can fetch up to $1000. Most are worth between $100 and $300.
Chase is also remembered to this day by a large bank, now a merged institution, with his name still in its title.