The Tale of a Two Dollar Bill

When was the last time you saw a $2 bill?  Only recently, I came across one while buying spinach at my favorite Union Square Green Market vendor.  The young man helping at the stand, a short, immaculately dressed Hispanic, looked me in the eye as he gave me my change.  “This is a $2 bill,“ he repeated twice in slightly broken English to make sure I heard him. Knowing how rare deuces are, I was thrilled, like a kid being given an unexpected chocolate chip cookie. After the first blush of excitement, I start to wonder.  Just how unique is this denomination and how did it come about?  Good luck?  Bad luck?  Valuable?  Even worthy of discussion?  Of course, and so here it goes.

Affectionately called “Toms,”—thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s face which adorns it—the $2 bill was first introduced in 1862. It was printed by our government along with $1 bills, paper currency being a brand-new concept at the time.  During and post-Depression, the $2 bill took on a negative reputation as the bill for nefarious purposes, from gambling, to voter payoffs to prostitution.  In fact, it was sometimes called a “whore note. “ This unfortunate connection with prostitution actually kept Thomas Jefferson from being considered for what later became the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin.

I’ve read that to ward off the hex of the “deuce" in the 1930s people began tearing off a corner of the bill when they encountered them.  While at the same time, other people looked favorably on this currency.  For example, Henry Ford, paid his factory workers in $2 bills during the Depression. He literally flooded the market to make sure that Detroit appreciated how much he contributed to the local economy.

Over time, the government stop producing them until 1966 when the printing press cranked up again saving the government lots of money.  After all, you can print up the same dollar amount by printing half as many two-dollar bills as ones.  For the Bicentennial, the Treasury printed 400 million worth of $2 bills replacing the image of Monticello on the back with a stunning engraving of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Fast forward and now there are roughly 1.2 billion $2 bills in circulation.  While this odd currency is still being produced, out of the $1.2 trillion worth of coins and bills out there, Toms represent a mere 0.001%. 

Valuable?  Except for the Bicentennial printing and bills with a red seal, a $2 is worth—you guessed it—two dollars.  Now, it is used mostly for sentimental purposes, sort of a paper keepsake, or to make a statement.  Whether or not is it now considered good or bad luck, I asked a few friends their thoughts.

One friend of mine and avid fisherman, Michael Kennerly, talked about going to a Fly-Fishing show where the admission was $18. Since most attendees handed over a $20 bill, the registration folks had piles of $2 bills for change. In that case, the bill had marketing talk value. 

Walking by my local TD Bank the other day, I stepped inside to speak with Redmart Mendoza, the “Store Manager” (how’s that for a bank title?), a young banker with a trendy rade haircut, impeccably cut suits which he always tops off with an official kelly green TD Bank tie. Drilling down into the topic, I asked if his bank kept $2 bills in stock. Red replied courteously with his cheerful Aussie accent, “No, but we can certainly order them for you from our Cash Management System.” When I asked what that was, he explained the this is a system all banks use as no one carries large quantities of bills. Think Brinks or Loomis armored trucks.

I asked Red if he realized some people thought they were bad luck.  “I’ve never heard that before.  In fact, in December I always request $100 worth of $2 bill for my personal use. They come in handy during the year for tips and as good will gestures when someone does something special.  You should see the expression of surprise when I will give them out to people begging in the subways,” Red added with a rakish grin.

The flip side of good luck versus bad luck was recently recounted by my friend and wine writer, Marguerite Thomas.  She had enthusiastically accepted a TarteTatinTale “stringer assignment” looking for another non-American view point on the deuce.  Marguerite chose her British friend Carol to interview. Marguerite gave this background. “Carol is a serious bridge player, and it seems that after a game is finished a stack of $5 bills is brought out and the winners of that game take their money out of the stack. Inexplicably, she said, someone has recently been putting a $2 bill into the stack. When I asked Carol if she ever took the $2 she shook her head vehemently and said, “‘Never!’” “Well, why not?” Marguerite asked, to which Carol wagged her head again this time making a terrible face. “Can you please just tell me in words why not?” Marguerite persisted. “‘I just wouldn’t. Not ever, ever, ever. It just gives me the creeps.’”

Whatever you think about the $2 bills, rare currencies have sentimental value for me.  My favorite grandfather, Bill McCallister, used to give my sister and me each a shiny, new silver dollar every Christmas when we were kids.  I keep this pile of heavy coins in a wooden jewelry box made by my father. As cumbersome as they are,  these coins are cherished as a family keepsake which my nephews will inherit one day.  And now, resting on top of them, I have my one $2 bill given to me by a serious young man working at the farm stand who was determined I understood he was not trying to pull one over on me. Out of respect for this earnest gesture, the corners of that $2 bill have remained untouched.