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  • Robert Farago

The Queer History of the Two-Dollar Bill

Can I say that?

Is it safe to use the expression “queer as a two-dollar bill”? It used to be. It meant something was odd. And then…

It became a derogatory expression. “He’s as queer as a two-dollar bill.”

In the same way as black people claimed exclusive rights to the N-word, the LGBTQ+ community came to consider “queer” their word.

The two-dollar bill may not be queer anymore, but it’s still odd. And it’s still out there… somewhere. A lot of them, actually.

In 2020, the U.S. Treasury reported $1.4 billion worth of $2 bills in circulation.

That sounds a lot, but we’re talking about 0.001 percent of the $2 trillion in circulation at the time.

Mind you, "in circulation" doesn’t mean $2 bills were being used as legal tender. No one knows how many $2 bills are salted away, but you can pretty much round it up to… all of them.

Rare Bird?

The National Bank Note Company (1861-1872) started printing the $2 bill in 1862.

That’s failed duelist and future Broadway-star Alexander Hamilton sitting front and off-center, in profile, waiting to jump ship to the $10 bill.

The $2 was a big old bill (approximately 7 3/8” by 3 1/8”) worth big bucks: $300 in today’s money.

Will you look at that!

Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse depicted on the reverse of the 1896 $2 'Educational Series" Silver Certificate.

There were nine major design variations between the original $2 bill and the start of our current note. In pristine condition, vintage $2’s fetch piles of filthy lucre. Or, more accurately, a PayPal transfer.

A flawless example of the 1896 $2 “Educational Series" Silver Certificate like the one above – a staggeringly beautiful example of the engraver’s art – can be yours for $5,899.

The first “modern” $2 bill – nicknamed “the Tom” for obvious reasons – came hot off the presses in 1928, measuring a relatively modest 6.14 inches x 2.61 inches.

Worth $37.75 in today’s money, the bill’s back featured Jefferson’s Virginia manse (as below).

And then there were none

In 1966, Uncle Sam stopped printing the Monticello $2 bill due to low demand. Not to mention its reputation. Actually, let’s go there…

Start with this: $2 in 1966 was worth $18.87 in today’s money. Before that more, obviously.

It was a very useful bank note, but not in what you might call a virtuous way. St. Louis CNB’s bank’s archivist explains…

  1. An urban legend claims that at one time, election rigging was common and the reward for a favorable vote was $2. There was a belief that politicians would purchase votes for $2 therefore, having a $2 bill could be seen as evidence that you had sold your vote. While most likely an urban legend, the myth still gave the bill a sinister reputation.

  2. In the early 1920s, Prostitution was $2.00 a trick, leading some to refer to the bill as a “whore note.”

  3. The gambling tracks have a $2.00 window, and if you won, many times you were paid in $2.00 bills. If you were caught with $2’s in your wallet it could lead people to assume you were a gambler.

  4. The $2 bill was often thought to be bad luck, as “deuce” was a name for the devil. Recipients would tear off one corner, believing it would negate the bad luck of the bill. This caused many of the bills to be taken out of circulation as mutilated currency.

There’s also this, from The Bureau of Engraving & Printing (BEP):

In early 1942, the Treasury forbade the carrying of US currency across the Mexican-US border. The Treasury did this “to prevent use being made of Mexico as a place in which Axis agents may dispose of dollar currency looted abroad.” The only exceptions to this blockade were $2 notes and silver dollars as it was believed that there were not many of these items outside the United States. As a result, demand for $2 notes skyrocketed along the border.

From there, the $2 bill slowly, gradually went out of favor.

In 1976, the Feds reintroduced the $2 bill to mark the bicentennial, despite the fact that cash registers never had a specific drawer for the bill.

The U.S. Treasury labored under the impression that the $2 bill’s return would give it a new lease on life; that it would once again become commonly used legal tender.

The exact opposite occurred.

Adorned with John Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the gen pop thought the new $2 bill was a limited edition commemorative note.

The new two’s disappeared almost as fast they appeared. And then demand fell off a cliff. Again.

Not gone but forgotten?

Considering what $2 buys today and the perennial cash register problem, public demand for the bill remains virtually non-existent. With two notable exceptions.

In 1977, Clemson encouraged their football fans to use a stamped $2 bill to show Atlanta merchants that the University brought big bucks to town.

It’s still a thing among Tiger fans, but not a big thing. Same for Second Amendment advocates using the bill to promote their cause.

As for criminals, the $2 bill is now way too conspicuous. That said, there are more than a few counterfeit vintage $2 bills trolling for real money. Proving that some things never change.

Down but not out

What a long, strange trip it’s been for the $2 bill – from a proud major denomination, to a paper tiger with a roguish rep, to a collectible curiosity.

It ain’t dead yet!

Last year, the BEP printed some 208 million $2 bills. Chances are Uncle Sam stocked-up on the bill before another two-year-or-longer hiatus.

Some banks still stock the $2 bill. Some banks can provide the note upon request. And some bank tellers have never even seen one.

The love that dares speak its name

Rita Mae Brown said “The only queer people are those who don't love anybody.”

Flipping that around, the only queer note is one that’s not loved by anybody.

A sentiment that doesn’t apply to the two-dollar bill. And never will. The $2 bill will always have its fans.

This post was written at the request of Substack sub Pierre. If you’d like me to tackle a subject, email your suggestion to

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