The Mystery of $2 Bills - Pacific Standard

The Mystery of $2 Bills

Many people think $2 bills are more valuable than their labels advertise. Are they?
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(Photo: armydre2008/Flickr)

(Photo: armydre2008/Flickr)

Heather McCabe's wallet is as full as George Costanza's. But rather than being stuffed with hard candy and ads for free guitar lessons, McCabe's is full of an exotic material of another sort: $2 bills.

Over the past few years, McCabe has been going to the bank, withdrawing her money in stacks of $2 bills, and using them in a social experiment of sorts. Every time she pays with them, McCabe snaps a photo of the recipient and posts a dispatch at her website TwoBuckaroo.com. “Usually there's a moment of surprise, a pause when someone sees it, an exclamation,” McCabe says. “Sometimes eyes light up, sometimes the person gasps, and then usually says something like, 'Oh lucky two-dollar bill!'”

There are 11 billion $1 bills, 1.9 billion $10 bills, 8.1 billion $20s, and 10.1 billion $100s roaming the world right now.

It's not always positive though. While the now-famous Snopes story about a Taco Bell employee who refused to accept a $2 bill is probably not true, McCabe has been on the receiving end of vendors refusing to accept it as currency. “That's against the law,” McCabe says. “The bill is legal tender.” Among storeowners, the worry is that the $2 bills are counterfeit, a notion that comes from simply not seeing the bills in action all that much. “They don't necessarily trust themselves to know whether or not it's the real thing,” McCabe says. “But even so, who cares? If it's counterfeit, you're only losing two bucks.”

To McCabe, though, it's all good. Even negative reactions are indicative of this strange mid-point between currency and novelty that the $2 bill somehow inhabits. “There is always a reaction,” she says.

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McCabe started her obsession after finding a bill in her jewelry box. “I have no memory of saving it,” McCabe says. “I thought it was special, I don't know why.” Personally, I had the same strange experience after returning to my parents' home and being greeted with a metal cup of $2 bills that I'd apparently held onto. John Bennardo, the producer and director of a soon-to-be-released documentary about the bill, found himself in the $2 crew by finding a bunch of them in the bottom of his drawer, saved for no good reason.

“I'd pull them out and admire them,” Bennardo says. “I didn't want to spend them.”

“The majority of people I've met, regardless of their education level or background, seem to believe the two-dollar bill is not made anymore.”

But why? Are they rare, therefore making them somehow more valuable than their $2 label? Nope. According to United States Federal Reserve statistics, there are currently 1.1 billion of the $2 bills in circulation. While that may be comparatively fewer than other bills—there are 11 billion $1 bills, 1.9 billion $10 bills, 8.1 billion $20s, and 10.1 billion $100s roaming the world right now—anything that numbers over one billion should not be considered “rare.”

How about the claim that they're not printed anymore? “The majority of people I've met, regardless of their education level or background, seem to believe the two-dollar bill is not made anymore,” McCabe says. They're printed less regularly than other bills—normal bills get a yearly printing, while $2 bills have only been printed three times over the past decade—but the most recent printing occurred in 2014. It's not as if the $2 bills being handled are classic tender from yesteryear.

What, then, makes them seem somehow more valuable than $2? Let's go back to the beginning.

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The first official $2 notes were issued in 1862 and featured the visage of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton on the front. It wasn't until 1869 that Hamilton was replaced by the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who still peers forlornly from the little-used bill today. (Hamilton, his political rival, got the last laugh of currency prevalence by ending up on the $10 bill.) The back was an engraving of Jefferson's estate. But even at the start, the bill had a tough time finding its place.

“American commerce has never paved the way for $2 bills to be accepted. They don't know where to put them,” McCabe says. “There's never even been a cash register slot for $2 bills.”

“The key for the successful circulation of the $2 note is for retailers to use them just like any other denomination in their daily operations.”

Things began to turn for the bill's fate during the Great Depression. “A dollar would buy you anything you needed,” Bennardo says. As a result, $2 bills were used less often. With no demand, there was no reason for them to be printed. After the 1928 printing, the bills weren't printed again until 1953. They were then printed once again in 1963. In 1966, the decision was finally made to discontinue the $2 bill for lack of use.

But you can't keep a good bill down.

As part of America's full-blown Bicentennial celebration, the $2 bills were re-printed again and released on April 13, 1976, in honor of Jefferson's birthday. This printing came with some spiffy re-designs: The front was glossier and bolder, while the back cast aside Monticello in favor of an engraving of artist John Trumbull's painting “The Signing of the Declaration of Independence.” But despite the new printing, the bills were a bit like a middle-aged divorcee trying to get back into the club scene after two decades on the sidelines.

After a decade of rumors of the bill's demise, people started believing the denomination was really gone. When someone came upon it, there was a feeling that a lucky one had somehow made it through, that they should lock it away for safe keeping until some eccentric millionaire gave word he'd pay top dollar for the remaining deuces out there. Despite the fact that they were and are out there, an impression of rarity took hold.

“The reason they're perceived as rare is because everyone puts them in the drawer and doesn't use them,” Bennardo says. “That feeds the perception of rarity. They're rare, you put them in your drawer, the cycle repeats.”

This sort of defeats the purpose for their existence. The whole point of monetary systems is to allow for the exchange of goods and services to be easily accomplished. Rather than lugging around sacks of gold coinage like Scrooge McDuck or, more likely, spending hours trying to determine just how many (x) your skills are worth, the economy can chug along at a reasonable pace when everyone gets on the paper money system. If money is to have value, it must circulate.

But: “There is not much demand for this bill in circulation,” says Lydia Washington, the public affairs specialist for the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. “The key for the successful circulation of the $2 note is for retailers to use them just like any other denomination in their daily operations.”

However, they don't. If someone gets their hands on a $2 note and spends it at the bar, the bartender will often “buy” it off the bar with two $1s of their own, take it home, stick it in the bottom of a drawer or back of a wallet, and just let it rot. It's taken out of circulation by individual users due to the perception that it's more valuable—or, will be more valuable—than the $2 listed on the bill. And yet, clearly, this isn't the reality. Take a $2 bill to a collector and see how much they offer in return.

The bill does continue to have a weird, vibrant life in certain subcultures: Strip clubs often make change with $2 bills in order to allow their dancers to receive better tips. Many horse-racing tracks have a minimum bet of $2, so the bills come in handy there. In Michigan, supporters of marijuana legislation have used $2 bills as a silent way to express how much “green” the green weed will boost the economy. The bills are also used as a calling card of sorts for gun owners. “[They] use them as a symbol of the Second Amendment,” Bennardo says. “To start a conversation about their right to open carry.”

Despite the fact that the actual value of the $2 bill is exactly two dollars and zero cents as far as the U.S. Treasury is concerned, it is worth more. It's good luck, a collectible, a novelty. It's bad luck, useless, an obvious forgery. It's something different to everyone, but it's something more valuable than two $1 bills.

“It's the only U.S. bill in circulation that, to me, seems worth more than its face value,” McCabe says. “It's so weird, so funny, why this one bill ... I don't have an answer. Everyone has a different anecdote. It's all emotion-based.”

Bennardo's documentary includes the story of a woman who lost her husband on 9/11 in New York. “He'd proposed with two $2 bills,” Bennardo says. “It was their second marriage, second chance in life,” so the oath was for them to always carry the $2 bills in their wallet. After the tragedy, they eventually found his wallet and the $2 bill nestled inside. The wife took out her own bill, held them together, and found “the closure she needed,” Bennardo says.

Whatever that's worth, it's definitely more than just a pair of $2 bills.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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