Secrets in Your Wallet! How to Read a Dollar Bill

Take a look at both sides of a one dollar bill to see what all the words, numbers, and pictures mean.

On the Front

1. “Federal Reserve Note.” About 99 percent of all currency now in circulation are Federal Reserve Notes. These notes are printed to meet the demand of the Federal Reserve System.

2. “The United States of America.” This tells everyone that this paper money is from the United States. It also appears on the back of the bill.

3. Federal Reserve District Seal. Each of the twelve Federal Reserve Districts has its own seal.

4. Serial number. Each bill has its own serial number. No number is repeated within the same denomination and series. Notice the letter at the beginning. It refers to the Federal Reserve Bank. The letter at the end of the serial number refers to the print run. The first run is “A.” In each run, the numbers go from 00000001–99999999. What run was your bill done on? A serial number with a star at the end tells us that the bill is a replacement for one that was destroyed during the printing process. These are referred to as star notes.

5. “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” The United States has decided that this currency is valid for the payment of all debts within the United States.

6. Signatures. There are always two signatures on the bill — one belongs to the treasurer of the United States, and the other belongs to the secretary of the Treasury.

7. Treasury Department Seal. The seal is printed in green ink over the denomination printing done in black.


Somebody has been tampering with the great seal. Can you spot the six changes?

Good Luck 13

There are thirteen levels of the pyramid, and it has been left unfinished to show that America is always growing.

Fun Fact

Lucky Thirteen

The number thirteen, representing the original thirteen states, appears several times in the Great Seal. On the obverse, there are thirteen stripes on the shield, thirteen tail feathers on the eagle, thirteen stars, thirteen arrows, and thirteen leaves and olives on the branch. On the reverse, the pyramid has thirteen layers.


8. Check letter. The letter is the same in both the upper left and lower right corners.

9. Denomination. The denomination is spelled out twice, once on the front on the right side of the bill, once on the back in the middle, and appears as a number in the four corners.

10. Portrait. No living person may appear on U.S. currency. Presidents, in this case George Washington, appear on all the denominations currently being printed except for the $10 and $100 bills. Do you know who appears on these? Alexander Hamilton graces the $10, and Benjamin Franklin's portrait is on the $100. And in case you didn't know, the presidents on the other bills are: $2 — Thomas Jefferson, $5 — Abraham Lincoln; $20 — Andrew Jackson; and $50 — Ulysses S. Grant.

11. Series. Every time a new design is used or a new secretary of the Treasury is appointed by the president and approved by Congress, the series date changes. If a bill has a letter after the date, it means a very minor design change has been made, or a new treasurer has been appointed by the president.

On the Back

1. Denomination. The amount is written out six times and written as a number four times.

2. “In God We Trust.” By law, this motto appears on all U.S. coins and currency.

3. Plate number. The plate used to print the back of the bill.

4. The Great Seal of the United States. The two sides of the Great Seal are reproduced on the one dollar bill. On its obverse is the American bald eagle. E Pluribus Unum means “out of many, one.” The olive branch symbolizes peace. The arrows symbolize the fight for liberty, and the cloud and stars above the eagle's head represent God and the light shining in the darkness. On the reverse is a pyramid symbolizing strength and, like the pyramids of Egypt, long life. It is unfinished to indicate that the United States continues to be built. The Roman numeral at the base is the number 1776. Annuit Coeptis is Latin for “He has smiled on our undertakings,” meaning God has favored the United States. The eye represents the eye of God. The other Latin motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum, means “a new order of the ages.” The new order refers to the new nation. The original Great Seal is made of brass (the one used today is made of steel) and is impressed into important papers to make them legal.

For information about what appears on the other denominations, read Nancy Winslow Parker's book Money, Money, Money: The Meaning of the Art and Symbols on United States Paper Currency (HarperCollins Children's Books, 1995). To learn about the artwork on money in other countries, read David Standish's The Art of Money (Chronicle Books, 2000).

Fun Fact

The Origin of $

The origin of the $ sign is thought to have come from the Mexican or Spanish “Ps” for pesos, or piastres, or pieces of eight. In old manuscripts, the “S” gradually was written over the “P,” which looks like the $ sign. Eventually $ was written instead.


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