Geek Trivia

What Is It Illegal For The U.S. Treasury To Print On Currency?

Religious Affiliations
Odd Serial Numbers
Animals
Living Persons
Which Of These Commonly Consumed Substances Is Actually A Pesticide?
An 1866 5-cent note featuring Spencer M. Clark's face
The Smithsonian Institute/Public Domain

Answer: Living Persons

Although it might simply appear to be a matter of national pride and design aesthetic that all U.S. currency with a person depicted on it carries the portrait of a long-deceased but historically significant American, it’s both national pride and a matter of law. Under the laws governing the production and printing of U.S. securities (which includes currency), it is illegal to feature portraiture of a living person on securities. As such, the U.S. Treasury maintains a policy of selecting significant figures from American history that are well known to the public. The current set of portraits were originally chosen in 1928 and have been updated several times when new security features and layouts were introduced.

While that’s an interesting tidbit, what makes for an even more interesting story is how the decision to ban living people from being featured on currency was arrived at. The law dates back to 1866 and came about because Spencer M. Clark, then the Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, issued a 5-cent paper note that featured his face. Not only was this universally considered in poor taste, but Clark was not particularly well liked in the government because of various scandals that he’d been involved in. Shortly after the release of the scandalous 5-cent note, the next appropriations bill was amended to include a prohibition against putting the face of a living person on any currency.