You can call it a “deuce,” a “Tom,” or even a “whore note,” but chances are you won’t spend one. The $2 bill is an oddity in US currency, despite the fact that it’s legal tender good for all debts public and private.
But why won’t we use them?
Other countries have a $2 denomination such as the Canadian “toonie,” which is spent with the same abandon as other coins. (Their smallest paper note is a reasonable $5.) But in the US, a $2 bill seems rare and special, and must be preserved. In our home, we have a jar just for $2 bills, and there are currently five sitting in there, collecting no interest, and never attracting attention when we need cash to tip the pizza guy.
Sociologists have studied this, and determined that people don’t spend their $2 bills because… people don’t spend their $2 bills. They’re rare only because people see them as special and hoard them, but in fact, they’re not rare or special at all.
One myth is that they are an “old” currency that hasn’t been printed for a long time. In fact, they’ve been printed as recently as 2014. Stores don’t give them as change because they don’t want to have to explain to the customer what it is. Also, few cash drawers have a space for them. What typically happens when a $2 is presented for payment is that an employee will keep it, replacing it with two $1 bills from their own wallet.
Some groups take advantage of this perceived specialness. Proponents of 2nd Amendment rights will use the bills to show their position. Strip club bars will give change in $2 bills in the hopes that the performers will earn more as each carefully placed bill has twice the value of the traditional $1 note. And survey companies will include them with their paper mailings in the hopes that you’ll fill out their survey after receiving such a valuable prize.
If you come across one, spend it as you will. If a shop won’t accept it, they’re acting outside the law, though it’s probably not worth the effort to report them to the treasury. Before you do though, take a look at it: it’s an odd bill. It’s the only US currency that doesn’t have a building on the back, and it’s the only one that doesn’t depict an eagle anywhere on the bill. It also features the most people, and it’s the only bill that shows someone wearing a hat.
The image on the back is taken from John Trumbull’s famous painting Declaration of Independence. It’s a massive 12 foot by 18 foot canvas that sits in the congressional rotunda today. Trumbull depicted 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration, but it’s not an image of the actual signing—it’s of the planning committee, those five men standing by the desk. And this large group of men never all met in the same room. In fact, some of the people depicted didn’t sign the declaration at all. There are 42 signers and 5 people who contributed to the process in some way.
While that’s odd, the image on the $2 bill is even odder: it only depicts forty people. Those folks on the end of the painting were omitted, presumably for space reasons. That’s easy enough to understand, but what’s harder to understand are the two mystery figures who appear in the middle, and aren’t on Trumbull’s painting in the rotunda. There are also some people missing as well. It’s a mystery!
Well, not so much. Trumbull didn’t paint just one version of his Declaration of Independence. He painted a smaller, earlier version that currently resides at the Yale University Gallery of Art. And in that version, we find the same people that are depicted on the $2 bill’s version, save for those omitted on the sides. The mystery man in the featured photo accompanying this piece is Abraham Clark of New Jersey. He’s in the rotunda version too, just sitting in a different space. Trumbull moved people around quite a bit between the two versions, and different people were depicted in similar poses, adding to the confusion. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has a complete explanation of the differences between the two paintings and the $2 bill on their website.
But there’s another mystery: if you look under the N in “United,” you’ll see what appears to be a stout black man. His name was George Walton, and a look at the original paintings shows he wasn’t black. His dark complexion on the $2 bill is just an artifact of the engraving process. Sorry conspiracy theorists! A mundane explanation has once again ruined your day.
If the $2 bill isn’t the most used note in US currency, it might be the most interesting. The next time you run across one, take a close look at the images before you stuff it in your sock drawer or a jar. And if you’re really curious, take the time to learn about each of the men depicted. There are some unexpected stories hiding there.