The Old Twenty

I stopped by my local pizza joint tonight to grab a lazy dinner, and upon getting to the counter I noticed that I had five ones and one twenty.

The tab was $7.30 so the obvious choice would be to whip out the twenty, which I did. Upon holding this Jackson in my hand though, I remembered it wasn’t just any Jackson. It was a pre-1998 redesign Jackson. 1969 in fact.

I’d had this beauty in my wallet for a couple of weeks and tried not to spend it — although I knew I eventually would unless it was put into safe keeping. Such a beautiful bill… clearly superior in every way to the new rubbish.

My head told me I was the only person in the restaurant who would care about such a thing.

Inhale. Exhale. I handed the bill unceremoniously to girl behind the counter.

“Oh wow! An old twenty! I’m SO keeping this!” she said to my surprise as she plucked a modern twenty from her own wallet and made the exchange.

“I’m glad it’s going to someone who appreciates it,” I said as I watched her show it off to the other employees.

After relinquishing the twenty, I realized that it had been probably two or so years since I’d seen one… and I pay with cash a lot. I wonder what that says about the shelf-life and geographic distribution of paper currency in our country. I’d love to see some studies on this.

UPDATE: Kottke, the master of interesting cultural trivia, is up-to-date on this and has detailed info.

22 comments on “The Old Twenty”. Leave your own?
  1. Matt says:

    Check out Where’s George, the US currency tracking project.

  2. jkottke says:

    According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, $20 bills last on average only two years:

    Money wears out from handling and is sometimes accidentally damaged or destroyed. The average life span of a $1 bill, for example, is about 18 months. The $10 bill has about the same life span. For a $5 bill the average life is 15 months, and for a $20, two years. The $50 and $100 notes don’t circulate as often as the smaller denominations, so they last longer—the $50 bill, about five years, and the $100, eight and a half years. The average life of a coin is 25 years.

  3. About a year ago, I bought something with cash (I don’t remember) and I got some change back.

    I noticed all day that there was this weird clinging in my pocket. Didn’t quite sound like change clinging around, it had a different ring to it. It eventually piqued my curiosity and I pulled out everything in my pocket and it was just change and my car keys.

    So I started shaking the change in my hand and I heard it again. It was a quarter, but not just any quarter, a silver quarter. It was the first time I’ve ever seen one so I kept it.

  4. Craig C. says:

    On a Sunday morning in late November of 1998 I had an omelet at Harry’s Cafe in Pittsburg, Kansas. I paid with cash, and amongst my change I received a 50-cent piece (minted 1995). It’s not a terribly special thing, nothing remarkable at all about the object. But half-dollar coins are just uncommon enough that I decided to hang onto it for a while. I’ve had that coin in my pocket ever since.

  5. gb says:

    As for the 2 year shelf-life of a 20, it reminds me of my last australian bill, a ten, which I proudly kept in my wallet for 5 years after I moved back to the states. If you know Aussie money, it’s many things (very colourful, is see-thru in parts) but most of all, it’s damn near indestructible. The bills are plasticised, and while it may seem weird at first, I wish the the US would adopt it. That bill was at least a few years old when I got it, plus the 5 years in my wallet, with at least one weekly demonstration of “Look, you can’t rip it!” to shocked acquaintances, before it finally gave up the ghost and snapped in my hands. I damn near cried that day…

  6. Rex says:

    Huh, did you know they don’t print anything over the $100 bill anymore — and haven’t since 1946?

  7. Rick Rajter says:

    Just imagine if it was as cool as the liberty dollar

    Yeah yeah… not “official” currency, but the bills are wicked sweet. Just the feel of these puppies is far superior to that of our monopoly money.

    And backed by shiny silver. Super sweet!

  8. Scott N. says:

    I would have paid with the twenty and 3 ones, giving me 15.70 in change, plus the two remaining ones. No sense in having a pile of ones in the old wallet. Those extra pieces of paper just weight you down.

    (Yes, I also face all my money in the same direction with the proper rotation, ordered by denomination. Always. Big deal.)

  9. Eric Meyer says:

    I’m with you, Scott. Plus I put the ones and five in the forward of my two bill pockets, and the tens and twenties in the rearward pocket.

    I have to disagree with you about the superiority of the old $20 to the current $20, Mike. Given both feature Andrew Jackson looking like he’s coming off a four-day bender, the difference in design is kind of a question of how the deck chairs are arranged on the Andrea Doria. Either way, Jackson’s visage is still going to do a Stockholm on it.

  10. Alan H. says:

    I would agree 100% with the design, but the production amazes me. There was a documentary on tv {sorry – forget where} a few months back showing the plates being cut by hand. They work in a small team, as security prohibits one person responsible for drawing the design. Everything is etched by hand in reverse! All lettering is also done by hand — in reverse. I think they said it takes six months to complete one side. Maybe that’s just job security.

    Challenge: I think Mike readers should design a twenty all web2.0’d-out.

    The gauntlet has been thrown! Show us Currency 2.0
    Starting with a name: “” ?

  11. Whyren says:

    If it helps any, I felt about the same way upon spending a $20 silver certificate bill some time ago. Oh why, oh why didn’t I have any more poorly designed contemporary bills on hand?

  12. John B says:

    Reminds me of my first motorcycle trip up to British Columbia in ’04. We stopped at a restaurant to get out of the rain and get some coffee. I pulled out a paper $1CAN and the girl at the cashier freaked out. She asked if I had any more. I didn’t. I also had no idea that they were so rare, since being replaced by coins. Ironically, I thought $1 coins were rare. ;)

  13. ian says:

    I am 28 at present but when I was 16 years old I had a friend in high school that had a mother who worked nights. One weekend after watching movies we determined that we needed to go and purchase snack food, but we had no money. I knew I had to collect money form a paper route that week, so I assured my friend that any money we found in the house could be replaced and there would be no issue.

    We dug and shuffled around until discovering a crisp, but oddly colored 20 dollar bill in a box. Thinking nothing of it after determining it was in fact a real twenty; we went to the grocery store and purchased (I remember vividly because the list seems so inane to me now) a box of Fruity Pebbles, cinnamon rolls, and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. Hell, we even came out with lots of change. No sweat!

    I would come to find out that his mother spent the remainder of the weekend sobbing after discovering we had spent the last gift her older brother had given her before leaving and consequently not returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only had we spent a 1968 20 dollar bill, but a treasured keepsake on total rubbish.

    To this day, I always look closely at my 20 dollar bills and after reading this story I have renewed hope that the bill we spent is still floating in circulation, since I believe old bills are generally possessed by banks and destroyed by the Dept of Treasury.

  14. Ryan says:

    True, John. On my first trip to Canada, denominations smaller than $5 were in coins. I had $1 coins and $2 coins and I was like, “who the hell decided that a $2 coin was useful?” After spending two weeks with our friendly neighbors to the north, I learned that using dollar coins actually worked out. I had no idea the Canadians even had paper $1s.

    To bad the dollar coin has never really “taken” with Americans.

    And to Mikey D., yeah, the old money is way better than the new skid marks the mint is producing these days. However, whenever I come into possession of an old bill, I generally end up spending it even though I fathom I’ll hold on to it for its aesthetic and historical value.

  15. Mike D. says:

    Chris: Weird. I had a similar experience with Coinstar a couple of months ago where I basically shoved about a hundred bucks worth of spare change into the machine and after 5 minutes of sorting it, one dime came out. I put the dime back in… same result. Repeated four times before I realized it was a silver dime. Crazy that they can detect that (and that they wouldn’t accept it!).

    Eric: Yes, but at least with the old twenty, Jackson’s hungover mug is much smaller. If you look at the rest of the design touches on the two bills, the old is clearly more artfully done. That said, I’m all for putting MLK on the thing and reprinting.

    ian: My god, that is probably the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Holy *crap* that’s sad.

  16. Jeff says:

    Worth checking out:

    JSG Boggs is an artist that draws currency. He doesn’t sell his drawings…. he spends them!

  17. I’ve been living in Ireland for about half a year now, and I still have mixed feelings about the Euro (which doesn’t have notes below 5euro). In the states, a single dollar, while not something to be cherished, still felt like a real chunk of money. Having 1euro coin doesn’t really do that for me. It feels so insignificant. But it’s actually worth more!

    I don’t know whether this is my own problem–that I’m used to coins being worthless–or a problem implicit in the system. Either way, it troubles me.

  18. ManxStef says:

    Here’s an image of the new 20 dollar bill for comparison. I must admit that the old one has more style, the portrait in particular is far superior.

    This post reminded me of something I linked to recently: a
    fascinating interview on banknote design with Ootje Oxenaar, a Dutch graphic designer. His designs are beautiful and I love the way he managed to sneak some personal touches into the notes, such as a fingerprint and his name.

    After working in a printshop and designing several gift certificates with guilloché patterns on it made me see banknotes in a whole new light, I find their design quite intriguing.

    Speaking of which, something that really struck me as poor design is the size of all the US notes: they’re all the same! From a usability & accessibility aspect that’s got to be confusing — I can imagine it being a huge problem if you’re visually impaired, for instance — and it may also make forgeries easier if you can bleach the ink off a lower value bill and reprint a higher denomination, thereby avoiding the difficult task of finding the correct paper. (This assumes the rag is the same for all notes, though.)

    One more tangent: have you ever noticed seemingly randomly-placed circular patterns on many notes, such as the new 20USD? It’s called the EURion constellation and causes photocopiers and suchlike to refuse, or distort, copies.

  19. dale tan says:

    I know how you feel about finding old bills. And like you said, I keep mine out of my wallet/pocket. I also have an old 5 and 10…waiting for those old 50s and hundos.

  20. Jim Lovell says:

    How many times does a one dollar bill change hands in it’s life time?
    Best Regards Jim

  21. […] towards the hotel, and picked up a pizza at Pagliacci, a pizza place recommended by one of Selmas favorite bloggers. Back at the hotel room we enjoyed the pizza, watched a bit of Greys Anatomy (it’s taking […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe by Email

... or use RSS