George Washington’s birthday is on Sunday, and, while most people recognize our first president on the dollar bill, many don’t know how the first U.S. dollar bill came to be. Before the note we know today, the bill went through many incarnations—two of which included the only portrait of a woman ever found on U.S. paper currency.
No biography of George Washington is complete without crediting Martha Washington. Legend has it that she offered up her own silverware to melt into the first U.S. coins. So it’s only fair that she should make it onto some money! Some of the first U.S. dollar bills ever printed featured the original first lady.
In 1862, the first legal tender one-dollar banknote was printed, featuring Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase. After 18 years, the portrait of Chase on the dollar bill was replaced by one of George Washington. That same version of the Washington dollar bill also showed a scene of Columbus finding land in the top left corner of the obverse side. Though it underwent many revisions over time, some version of this dollar bill was printed for many years to come.
Six years after the first legal tender dollar bill featuring Washington debuted, a separate $1 silver certificate was printed featuring Martha Washington. Her solitary portrait on the obverse of this silver certificate was the very first time a female political figure had ever been shown on U.S. currency. Ten years later, another $1 certificate featured both George and Martha as part of the Educational Currency Series. On this silver certificate, the famous couple was shown on the back of the bill. This was the last time a woman’s portrait was seen on U.S. paper currency.
Several other versions of the $1 note and $1 silver certificate were issued before the design resembling the one we have today was seen. The silver certificates printed in the “Series of 1928” were the first time paper currency was issued in the dimensions we’re still familiar with. The “small-size currency” featured exclusively $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 dollar bills. But the redesign changed all paper currency from that point on. The following year, all paper currency, including the $1, was changed to the size it remains. The 1929 dollar bill looked very much like the one today on the obverse. The reverse side did look different, however. Though similar to the design on today’s bill, it was missing some key elements. The “One” was much larger, and took the place of both the pyramid and the U.S. seal. The current reverse design was first printed in 1935.
When most people think of the $1 bill, they think of George Washington. But Martha’s portrait on the $1 bill helped pave the way for more currency featuring women, like the Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea dollar coins.
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