Collecting historic bills and notes is a widespread practice across the United States and other countries. But the question is... Why collect paper? After all it isn't any precious metal that has inherent value! It is just green paper (okay… a special green paper! And yes more colors are coming into picture now…but you get the point!) How does it still manage to wield so much power on us? While it doesn’t have any intrinsic value, a $50 bill when dropped on the sidewalk disappears just as easily as if you dropped a gold coin.
What is this perceived value of a currency note? Is it more than the promise of the signatory in the bill? If you ask any John or James, he may not care who signed his bill but will sure know a counterfeit one from the real one most of the time. How does he do it? From the symbols littered throughout a note, of course!
From Colonial notes to Federal Reserve notes
The history of the US bills and notes goes back to the colonial days. The Massachusetts Bay colony issued the first currency notes in the 1690’s, followed by other colonies. In 1739, Benjamin Franklin produced notes with raised patterns to fight counterfeiting. Each colony had banks that issued their own notes. These were called the Colonial notes. 
During the Revolutionary war with Britain in 1775, the Continental notes appeared and disappeared as quickly because too much was printed and lost its value. In 1861, the US currency appeared as Demand notes for funding the Civil war. They were also called the ‘greenbacks’ as the back side of the notes were painted green to avoid counterfeits. In 1862, another category of US currency called the United States notes was produced. The Bureau of Engraving and printing started printing the seals and portraits on US bank notes in 1869.
Through the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, a centralized Federal Bank with a National banking system was set up and started producing the Federal Reserve notes. In 1929, the size of the Federal notes were reduced and standardized. By 1971, the United States notes were discontinued. Now the only paper money produced is the Federal Reserve note!
Historic bills and notes for collectors
‘State of South Carolina’ Bond scrips
The Confederates had their own bank notes, notable of which is the ‘State of South Carolina’ bond scrips of the 1870s. These bond scrips from the Civil war period were made available for collectors in 2008 through an auction of Confederate money. The $50 revenue bond scrip had ‘George Washington’ in the center and an artist’s impression of a former slave on a horse drawn wagon on the left and some more slaves picking cotton on the right. The $2 revenue bond scrip had a busy port scene in the center showing bales of cotton ready to be loaded onto ships, with the left vignette showing two women carrying sheaves of grain and the right showing a portrait of Marie De Montijo Eugenie, the last Empress of France and the consort of Napolean III.
1899 $1 Silver Certificate Black Eagle
The Silver Certificates were a kind of representative money that can be redeemable through Federal Reserve notes currently. The 1899 $1 Silver Certificate is recognizable by the Black Eagle in the center with both American Presidents Lincoln and Ulysses Grant on the left and the right vignettes respectively. While the Black Eagle is quite common, the higher grades have more value for the collector.
1914 $5 Federal Reserve Note
The $5 Federal Reserve Note has Abraham Lincoln in the center and is the single-most large Federal Reserve note available now as it was issued before the sizes were reduced. In the back, the note shows a portrait of Christopher Columbus and his crew landing in the Island of Hispaniola (as named by Columbus) part of the Caribbean Islands and the vignette on the right shows the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock.
1923 $1 Silver Certificate
The 1923 $1 Silver Certificate, also called a ‘Horse Blanket’ as it is a very large currency note, has George Washington in the center and a red seal or a blue seal on the side. These US currency notes are quite common, but fetch premiums for higher grades. A William and Tate signature with a star serial number is the rarest and fetches a premium.
$500 Series and $1000 Series 1934 Bank Notes
The $500 1934 Bank note has William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States in its center. The $1000 1934 Bank note has Stephen Grover Cleveland in the center. He was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. The interesting thing is that he is the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897) and to be counted twice in the numbering of the presidents. This series has two kinds of seal; the pale green and the lime green seals. The lime green seal notes are scarcer and hence fetch a premium.
WWII Hawaii $1 Emergency Note
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States decided to issue a different emergency currency that could be rendered useless in the event of a Japanese invasion. The notes had overprints of the word HAWAII. There were two small overprints to the sides of the obverse of the bill and a huge outlined HAWAII lettering in its reverse.
1976 $2 Bicentennial Bank Note
When we talk about historic bills and notes we don't really think about bills after the 1950's. So how did a 1976 $2 bill come into this list? One of the reasons is that this $2 bill was released in the Bicentennial year of US independence. The obverse had the same portrait of Jefferson as the 1928 note. For the reverse, instead of the Monticello, it had an engraved rendition of John Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence. They were also called the 'Bicentennial twos' for this very same reason. The other interesting fact was that when it was released, most folk took their new $2 bills to the nearest post office to be stamped with a 13 cent stamp and the date 'April 13 1976'!
The US currency is a powerful representation of the integrity and identity of our nation. You can distinguish between US bills and those of another country’s almost immediately, as the symbols are imprinted in our mind. These symbols are the portraits in the currency, the insignias and the seals, the regal buildings and the fonts used. And this is what the collector of historic bills and notes looks forward to.