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Fed $5 set spans nearly 100 years

If you really want to assemble a complete collection of one denomination of Federal Reserve Notes that will span all years of Federal Reserve Notes from their beginning with Series 1914 as large-size notes to the present day it might come as a surprise that the familiar $1 Federal Reserve Note will not work as back at the start there were no $1 Federal Reserve Notes. The $1 Federal Reserve Note arrived with Series 1963. That means that the lowest denomination going all the way back to the first Federal Reserve Notes is the $5 and that makes a $5 Federal Reserve Note collection special and especially interesting.


The Federal Reserve Note emerged as a result of the Federal Reserve Act of Dec. 23, 1913. That legislation would be the cornerstone of the system we have today, but at the time the $1 note was excluded and the only denominations authorized were $5-$100. Today that would seem a bit odd, but it must be remembered that the Federal Reserve System was being phased in and in terms of notes the nation was still operating with a diverse group in circulation. In 1913 there were $1 Silver Certificates and United States Notes in regular production and there would quickly be the addition of a World War I emergency $1 Federal Reserve Bank Note.

A $1 Federal Reserve Note was thought unnecessary in 1913.

Interestingly enough, the second issue of large-size Federal Reserve Notes would also not include either the $1 or $2 as Series 1918 was strictly for upper denominations from $500 to $10,000. That is just further suggestion that at the time officials had no reason to suspect that they would ever need a Federal Reserve Note denomination lower than the $5.

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The first $5 Federal Reserve Note had emerged as a Series 1914, which would feature a vignette of Lincoln on the face and a back design of “Columbus in Sight of Land” and the “Landing of the Pilgrims.” It was actually fitting as it was a transitional note in a sense and it had a transitional design with the Lincoln face design being a sign of things to come while the back was typical of the notes of an earlier era.

The Series 1914 $5 Federal Reserve Note started with a red seal that was quickly changed to blue and that makes a significant price difference with a red seal that has a Burke-McAdoo signature combination being much tougher priced at roughly $300 in fine and perhaps topping $1,800 to $2,300 in Choice Crisp Uncirculated 63 depending on the Federal Reserve Bank. You might be able to find an example from Boston or New York for a little less but most districts will be priced at roughly the same levels.
The blue seal Series 1914 $5 Federal Reserve Notes are much more available with prices starting at $60 in fine and going up to $275 in CH CU 63 depending on the signature combination. It should be noted that CH CU 63 price makes the blue seal $5 a very popular note with type collectors as it is easily the least expensive large-size $5 in top grades with its current price being much less expensive than you would pay for an equivalent grade National Bank Note or any other large-size $5.

The blue seal Federal Reserve $5 notes make for an interesting collection as they come with a number of signature combinations that spanned nearly 14 years including Burke-McAdoo, Burke-Glass, Burke-Houston and White-Mellon and with those possibilities from potentially 12 districts a collection can be sizable. Historically, relatively few have attempted such a collection, but that may well be changing, although at least for now there are relatively few notes commanding premium prices even though we can be sure that all the districts and signature combinations are not equally available.
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For the present, the market is sorting out which blue seal 1914 $5s will command the real premiums in CH CU 63. Chicago district with a Burke-Glass combination is priced at $2,000, or certain San Francisco or Atlanta district notes with the White-Mellon combination with varying placement of the district letter. To truly understand this requires a copy of the Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money by George Cuhaj and William Brandimore at your side to figure out the little variations that command the big bucks.

At the time the $5 Federal Reserve Note was probably seen by many as basically the same as the emergency $5 Federal Reserve Bank Note of 1915, though Lincoln was pushed to the far left for the emergency issue. The two were very similar in appearance at least to a casual observer. In fact, the period saw the transition to uniform designs already beginning as the Series 1923 $5 Silver Certificate also featured a Lincoln face design and that trend would become universal with the appearance of the first small-size notes in 1929.

The change to small-size notes had been in the works for some time. In fact the idea had been studied before the first Federal Reserve Notes were authorized as Secretary of the Treasury MacVeagh had appointed a committee to study the advantages to be gained by a size reduction. The report had been in favor of a size change but MacVeagh left office shortly after receiving the report and the idea was put on the back burner for years.

By 1925 the idea of a size reduction had attracted the interest of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon and he also appointed a committee although this time it was not to study whether a reduction was a good idea but rather to study the potential problems in making the change with advice as to specific procedures to follow to bring about the change. Simply put, the idea was basically already approved and the question was one of implementation. The report was accepted and the order given to go ahead with the changes in May of 1927.

It appears that Mellon’s committee or perhaps those who finally ordered the changes had gone beyond the matter of size. Certainly the idea of making the basic designs of different types of notes of the same denomination uniform was also part of the considerations, although at least in the case of the $5, that process had already begun. The Federal Reserve Notes would be increasing in importance but that did not mean the addition of a $1 or $2 as those two denominations would be exclusively the Silver Certificate in the case of the $1 and a United States Note in the case of a $2 and it would be decades before that would change.

There were other types of small-size $5 notes but it is not really in dispute that the $5 Federal Reserve Note was expected to be the main $5 in circulation. For collectors, the decades of small-size $5 Federal Reserve Note production have creating fascinating possibilities but also significant challenges. Even if the notes are readily available, which is the case for many, the sheer quantity of notes in a $5 Federal Reserve Note collection can be a challenge as with 12 districts as well as star replacement notes for 12 districts. A basic collection for every series could be 24 notes and many are the full 24, although some are not such as the tough Series 1928C, which had printings just for Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco, or the Series 1928D, which was just printed for Atlanta. Even so the majority of times the series will have close to or all 24 possible regular and star replacement notes, making it a serious undertaking.

The first small-size $5 Federal Reserve Note was issued in 1929 with the Series 1928 date and it is available as it had relatively large printings, including more than 10 million for the New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago districts. That makes it available for as little as $250 in CH CU 63, or roughly $100 in XF although a specific district can bring more.

In the case of star replacement notes for the Series 1928, type notes can be found starting at about $100 in XF although a CU example is likely to be closer to $500. In a few districts, however, star replacement notes can be much, much tougher, making a complete set of Series 1928 stars a collection that cannot be taken lightly.

The pattern of the Series 1928 is basically repeated with the Series 1928A and 1928B. A CH CU 63 Series 1928A star is more costly than the cheapest Series 1928 at roughly $1,250 although a regular note from the Series 1928A is not all that different in price than a CH CU 63 Series 1928 with a $200 listing. The Series 1928B is less at $100 in CH CU 63 although a CH CU 63 star is another matter at $800, but realistically all are good values for collectors as there is reason to believe they did not circulate as long as might have been expected.

At the root of suspect supplies is the fact that from the Series 1928 through the Series 1928D the $5 Federal Reserve Note carried a clause that stated that the note was “redeemable in gold on demand.” The clause would have seemed innocent enough back in 1929 but the Great Depression changed all that as there was a run on gold in late 1932 and early 1933. Eventually desperate officials would issue the Gold Recall Order of 1933 and there could not be that so-called gold clause on Federal Reserve Notes as it flew in the face of the order recalling gold.

At the time the Series 1928C $5 Federal Reserve Notes with a Woods-Mills signature combination had already been printed and were being released for the Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco districts while a Series 1928D was on its way to Atlanta with a Woods-Woodin combination.

What followed appears to have been something of a frantic effort to prevent the gold clause notes from being issued. It appears that only the Series 1928C notes for Atlanta actually reached circulation although we cannot be absolutely certain that the Cleveland, which had a decent printing of over 3 million, or the smaller San Francisco, which had a printing of just 266,304, failed to reach circulation, but they are unknown, suggesting they were stopped in time. That makes the Series 1928C from Atlanta the one option and it only had a printing of 2,056,200. Add to that fact that they would have been retired as quickly as possible and you have all the makings of a tough note, which is why an XF is $1,500 while a CH CU 63 is around $10,000.

The Series 1928D emerged even later and there the Atlanta printing. which was the only printing, stood at 1,281,600. Once again the issue is how many of that total were released and how many were retired and we have no answers except to suggest the Series 1928D is the key small-size $5 Federal Reserve Note with a current listing of $2,500 in XF and $9,000 in CH CU 63.
In the case of both the Series 1928C and 1928D it appears that no stars ever reached circulation. It would also not be out of line to suggest that as the Series 1928, 1928A and 1928B also carried the gold clause that they too were being retired as quickly as possible. That would not have an impact on CU numbers, but under the circumstances it should not be too surprising to find that those first series of the small-size $5 Federal Reserve Note are not as available in circulated grades as might be expected.

The gold clause was gone beginning with the Series 1934, which was produced quickly and in large numbers as it was a delicate balance to be retiring notes quickly at a time when there was a dire need to have as much money as possible in circulation. The Series 1934 and the $5 Federal Reserve Notes that followed right up to the present day are generally available and at very reasonable prices with a regular note from an available 1934 district likely to run $90 range in CH CU 63. Prices generally decline from there as the series dates get closer and closer to the present. That means that for a reasonable investment a large collection of top grade notes can be assembled.

The situation with star replacement notes is not as simple as stars were not always produced in large numbers and the number of collectors looking for star replacement notes for many years was not large. There is high collector demand for these today. As a result, there are some tougher stars such as the Series 1934C and 1934D which both list for $750 and $550, respectively, for the cheapest in CH CU 63. Naturally, the scarcer ones go for more.

What is a star note? Quite literally there is a star at the end of the serial number. This indicates it was printed as a replacement for another note that was somehow defective and destroyed.

The cheapest Series 1934 star lists for $700 in CH CU 63 while the Series 1934B is around $650 and the Series 1950 star is $300. Even the Series 1969B show a CH CU 63 star at $175, so there are a number of better stars and some are not that old.
In assembling a set it must also be remembered that available type notes are one thing and specific notes from a certain district can be a very different matter. The Series 1969B for example had a large 34 million printing for New York but the printings for Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis were all less than 6 million. It is only natural that the New York will be much more available. Similar situations are found throughout $5 Federal Reserve Notes and while premium prices for the districts with lower printings are not currently that much higher, it would not be surprising to see more diverse pricing in the near future.

The challenge of a $5 Federal Reserve Note collection varies greatly based on the grades you might desire and whether you are attempting to acquire a note of every series from every district. Of course, if you also include star replacement notes of every district and series the challenge expands into one where even though the price may not be too high, the simple task of finding so many different notes, many of which might well be much tougher than we expect, would be a test to the patience of many.

All that said, today the $5 Federal Reserve Note is still a collection many can start and finish. If they do, they will have a collection tracing one denomination through the entire history of Federal Reserve Notes. That has to be seen as a great collection and one of great historical importance.

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