How Well Do You Know the Dollar?
July celebrated the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every year, I use the Fourth of July holiday to talk about one of America’s most recognized symbols: the dollar bill. Here’s a recap.
The current dollar bill was designed in 1963. While we think of it as paper money, it’s actually a blend of cotton and linen, and if you look close enough, you’ll see it contains red and blue silk fibers.
Front of the Bill
1. Seal of the U.S. Treasury. The seal contains scales to represent justice. A chevron holds 13 stars representing the 13 original colonies (a theme that is repeated throughout the bill). The key represents authority, and 1789 was the year the Treasury Department was founded.
2. The Federal Reserve District seal identifies which of the 12 Federal Reserve banks issued the bill.
3. The portrait of our first president, George Washington, was painted by Gilbert Stuart. Washington has been on the dollar bill since 1869. The leaves in each corner are olive leaves, a symbol of peace.
Back of the Bill
The Great Seal of the United States was designed by several committees, the first of which included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It took four years to complete and another two to be approved by Congress.
4. Notice the pyramid on the left seal. The face is lit, but the Western side is dark — some have suggested that this demonstrates we had not yet begun to explore the West when the seal was designed in the 1700s. The pyramid is uncapped, signifying the U.S. is always growing. Charles Thompson, secretary of Congress in 1782, told Congress that the pyramid represented “strength and duration.” The eye inside the capstone is an ancient symbol for divinity, long used by the Masons. Above it is the Latin phrase “Annuit Coeptis,” meaning “God has favored our undertaking.” Below is “Novus Ordo Seclorum” meaning “A New Order for the Ages.” At the base of the pyramid are Roman numerals representing 1776, the year we declared independence from England.
5. The front of the seal (on the right) features the bald eagle, our nation’s symbol for victory. (This disappointed Franklin, who wanted the official bird to be the wild turkey, which is fierce in battle.) It’s believed the eagle fears no storm, for it is strong and smart enough to soar above it. The bald eagle has no crown, an important piece of symbolism demonstrating America’s rejection of monarchy. The shield on the eagle’s chest represents Congress. The eagle’s beak holds a ribbon proclaiming “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of Many, One.”
The eagle’s talons hold both an olive branch (a peace offering) and arrows (an instrument of war) — illustrating that our nation favors peace but is prepared to fight for it. The eagle’s face originally faced the arrows, but President Truman ordered it turned toward the olive branch.
Thirteen appears often; note the 13 steps on the pyramid, 13 letters in the Latin above it, 13 letters in “E Pluribus Unum,” 13 stars above the eagle, 13 plumes of feathers on each span of the eagle’s wing, 13 bars on its shield, 13 leaves on the olive branch, 13 fruits and 13 arrows.
6. The words “In God We Trust” were added in 1957, placed prominently in the center, and appear not in Latin but in English.