Most people never really look at dollar bills anymore. Thanks to inflation, a dollar bill can’t really buy much on its own, so their primary usage tends to be in vending machines, car washes, and left on restaurant tables as tips. But if you take the time to look at a dollar bill, you can easily spot symbols of the history and patriotic principles America was built upon.
By Linda Orlando
Even though the dollar bill is called ‘paper money’, the material it is printed on isn’t actually paper. It actually is fabric, a blend of cotton and linen, with minute silk fibers of red and blue running through the weave. In fact, just about everyone has washed a dollar bill left in their pocket, and they’re always still intact when the clothes come out of the dryer. A special blend of ink is used to print the green color on the material, and then the symbols are printed on top. A sheet of dollar bills is stretched to make them water resistant and then pressed before being cut, to give the bills the nice crisp look that new money has before being circulated.
The front of a dollar bill is pretty simple and straightforward. Besides the portrait of George Washington, there is the United States Treasury’s seal that appears. On the top are the scales for a balanced budget, and in the center is a carpenter’s square. Underneath is the key to the United States Treasury.
When you turn the bill over, you can see two large circles, both comprising the Great Seal of the United States. Benjamin Franklin and a group of other men were commissioned by the First Continental Congress to design the Great Seal. The seal you now see is the result of four years of discussion and designing, and another two years of wrangling to get the seal approved.
In the left-hand circle of the Great Seal is a pyramid, with one side lit and one side in the dark. The reason for this depiction of the pyramid with two aspects is that the United States was just beginning, and the West had not yet been explored and was therefore still in the dark. The pyramid is without a cap, signifying that the country was still in the process of being completed. Inside the capstone of the pyramid is the all-seeing eye, which is the traditional ancient symbol for divinity. This symbol was Franklin’s idea, based on his belief that one man cannot build a nation alone, but a group of men could do anything, as long as they had the help of God. Despite recent decisions that the mention of God should be removed from schools and public places, there is no doubt that the United States was built on our founding fathers’ belief in God. Two other indelible indications of that belief are the words ‘IN GOD WE TRUST,’ printed across the top of the bill, and the Latin inscription above the pyramid. ‘ANNUIT COEPTIS’ means, ‘God has favored our undertaking.’ The Latin below the pyramid, ‘NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM,’ means ‘a new order has begun.’ The Roman Numeral for 1776 appears at the base of the pyramid.
The right-hand circle is something you’ve seen many times in many places. It appears on every National Cemetery in the U.S. and is at the centerpiece of most monuments to heroes. With slight modifications, it is the seal of the President of the United States, and it is the symbol you always see on the front of the lectern when he speaks. But not many people know what the symbols in this circle means. The bald eagle is a symbol of victory because he is strong and not afraid of the storm, and is smart enough to soar above it. Two characteristics of the eagle symbolize the independence of the United States, as the eagle wears no material crown, because we had just broken ties with the King of England. The shield is unsupported, because the country can now stand on its own, but the white bar at the top of the shield signifies the Congress, a factor that unifies the United States.
The eagle is holding an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other. These symbols show that the United States will continually seek peace, but we will never be afraid to fight to preserve it. In the eagle’s beak you can read E PLURIBUS UNUM, which means ‘one nation from many people.’ Above the eagle are 13 stars that represent the original 13 colonies. Clouds of misunderstanding are rolling away, again indicating that the country is coming together as one.
One other fascinating piece of American history is shown on the dollar bill in several ways. Although the number 13 is almost universally believed to be an unlucky number, there are a host of events in the history of the United States that are associated with the number 13. There were 13 original colonies, 13 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 13 stripes on the American flag, 13 steps on the pyramid in the Great Seal, 13 letters in the Latin above it, 13 letters in ‘E Pluribus Unum’, 13 stars above the Eagle, 13 bars on that shield, 13 leaves on the olive branch, 13 fruits, and if you look closely, 13 arrows. And, for minorities, the 13th Amendment. So the number 13, for the United States, has been a blessed number.
Most people don’t know or care about the symbolism used on the dollar bills that they hold in their hands every single day. Many history teachers don’t even know what the symbols demonstrate about the unity and freedom that binds us. But millions of people throughout the last two centuries have given their lives to protect that unity and freedom. Now that you know the history behind the design of a dollar bill, you should pass it along. The next time you take a dollar out of your wallet to pay for your coffee, take just a second to thank God for the men who designed that dollar bill, and for the freedoms and principles that the symbols on it represent.