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Updated on Friday, July 19, 2019
With the musical “Hamilton” conquering Broadway (and the rest of the world), Alexander Hamilton is back in vogue. Did you realize that besides inspiring the musical, Hamilton’s portrait graces the $10 dollar bill? OK, fine. Everybody knows that, but what else about this iconic piece of U.S. currency might you be missing?
There are over 2 billion $10 bills currently in circulation, each of which typically lasts four and a half years before they’re replaced. Today, money coming out of circulation is recycled, although this didn’t use to be the case. Up until 2010, two-thirds of the old money being taken out of circulation would end up in landfills.
Who makes the $10 bill?
It’s no accident that Alexander Hamilton’s portrait appears on the $10 dollar bill today. After all, he served as the first secretary of the treasury from 1789 to 1795, and played a leading role in building the First Bank of the United States, which acted as a proto-central bank for the young nation. The bank distributed the first U.S. banknotes at this time — although the country would have to wait until 1861 for its first federally-issued $10 dollar bill.
Today, the Federal Reserve is responsible for controlling monetary policy in the U.S., which it does by setting interest rates. The Fed was established back in 1913, and one common misconception is that the Fed prints money. This is not the case: the Department of the Treasury is actually responsible for printing the currency, including the $10 dollar bill.
The 1913 Federal Reserve Act called on the Fed to preserve the economic stability of the country. On a day-to-day level, the Fed sets the level of short-term interest rates, as well as, the cost and availability of credit. Meanwhile, the Treasury prints and controls currency in circulation, and collects taxes via the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Early history of the $10 dollar bill
The $10 bill was originally nicknamed a “sawbuck” because of the X featured on early versions of the bill, which looked like sawhorses. Before the Federal Reserve was created, it went through many iterations.
The first $10 note issued by the federal government was printed in 1861, and featured a portrait of former President Abraham Lincoln. His face remained on the bill up until 1863, when Benjamin Franklin took over what is known as the First Charter $10 bill. Congressman Daniel Webster was the face of the $10 bill from 1869 to 1880. This bill is also sometimes referred to as the “jackass note” because the eagle shown on the front of the bill, when turned upside down, looked like the head of a donkey.
From 1863 to 1929, the government let individual banks issue their own notes, referred to as “national bank notes.” Apart from federally issued notes, there were multiple national bank versions of the $10 bill. Some of these versions include the ten dollar silver certificate featuring former Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the $10 bison note featuring Lewis and Clark, as well as the Red Seal 1902 bank note, which carried Gen. William McKinley on the face of the bill.
Ironically, Andrew Jackson, who was a fierce critic of central banking in the U.S. and paper notes in general, was the face of the $10 note from 1914 to 1929. These bills were quite large, measuring in at 7.375” x 3.125” inches. The back of the original Jackson $10 bill did not include a portrait of the Treasury building, as later versions did. Instead, it featured a plow and horses, as well as, smokestacks in the distance to symbolize agriculture and commerce.
Variations on the Hamilton $10 dollar bill
Alexander Hamilton’s face did not show up the $10 dollar bill until 1929. The size of the bill was reduced to 6.12” x 2.14” after 1929. This bill remained largely the same by design up until 1990, when a few slight modifications were made. The Treasury’s seal on the right front side of the bill was layered under the word “ten” on the newer bills. The word “ten” was also layered on top of the two numerical 10s on the bottom of the bill.
The 1990 bank notes also included a thread on the left front side of the bill that, when held up to light, spelled out “USA” and “TEN”. Changed as a security measure, this thread would glow orange when illuminated by an ultraviolet light. Additionally, the 1990 series notes had the words “The United States of America” in very small type around the outer edge border of Alexander Hamilton’s oval portrait
Changes to the $10 bill with the 2000 redesign
In 2000, a revised version of the $10 bill was unveiled to combat counterfeiting, which had seen a spike since the rise of digital printers. One of the main design changes was a revised portrait of Hamilton. The portrait was also moved slightly to the left side of the bill. The threading of “USA” and “TEN” included on the 1990 series was moved to the right side of the bill. As an added security measure, the 2000 note also included a faint portrait of Hamilton in the blank space to the right of the main portrait. This faint portrait that can only be seen when held up to the light and is along the same plane as the Secretary of the Treasury’s signature.
The $10 bill that is in circulation today is from the 2006 series. The most distinct change is the bill’s subtle background colors of orange, yellow and red. The portrait of Hamilton no longer has a border around it, and the watermark portrait of him was moved to the upper right-hand side of the bill underneath the new red “We The People” text that was added. In this series of bills the Fed added some patriotic symbols of freedom throughout. There are two depictions of the Statue of Liberty’s torch on the bill, one big and one small. The lower right “10” on the front of the bill now shifts from copper to green when titled.
The future of the $10 bill
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced in 2015 that a fresh face would be featured on a new $10 bill to be introduced in 2020. Secretary Lew suggested that the new $10 note should feature a woman who was a “champion of our inclusive democracy.” While the decision to launch a new $10 bill was based on security needs due to counterfeiting, the 2020 date also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The Treasury asked the public to submit candidates for the new $10 dollar bill portrait, and received over a million responses.
In April 2016, the Treasury reversed course and said that instead of a new $10 bill, a new $20 dollar note would be introduced in 2020 featuring a portrait of Harriet Tubman. This decision was triggered by strong public support, as well as legislation introduced by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. It was also announced that Alexander Hamilton would remain on the front of the $10 bill, and a tribute to the heroes of the women’s suffrage movement would be included on the back of the bill instead of a portrait of the Treasury building.
In May 2019, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delayed the launch of the Harriet Tubman $20 dollar bill to 2028, citing anti-counterfeiting features as the primary reason for the delay. The choice of Harriet Tubman had earlier been criticized by President Trump, who, in 2016, said during a live town hall event that he’d rather keep Andrew Jackson on the $20.
Despite the delay of the new $20 bill, new $10 and $50 notes are still expected to be released in 2020. The final design has yet to be released to the public. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing did not respond when asked to comment on the new $10 bill design.