United States silver certificates are paper money once backed by silver held in U.S. Treasury vaults. Until 1968, the holder of a certificate could take it to an appropriate bank and redeem it for an amount of silver equal to the bill’s denomination. Though no longer redeemable for silver, all silver certificates remain legal tender. If a silver certificate is collectible, it can be worth much more than its face value — even thousands of dollars, depending on its rarity and condition.
In an age of credit cards and cryptocurrency, references to silver certificates seem to be relegated to numismatic websites and old television shows. While they are no longer produced, silver certificates are still legal tender. Some can easily be overlooked, a slightly odd-looking bill hiding between more familiar ones in your wallet.
Silver certificates have a long history stretching back to 1878, when they were created to facilitate the legitimate trading of silver. Since then, they have gone through many design changes over the years, and today, they’ve become a form of collectible American monetary history. Most silver certificates are worth only a small premium above their face value of one dollar, but the rarest silver certificate dollar bills can be worth thousands of dollars.
What are silver certificates?
United States silver certificates are a form of paper money issued shortly after an 1873 law repealed the Coinage Act, which had allowed individuals to bring silver to the United States Mint and have it minted into silver dollar coins free of charge.
The new printed Federal Reserve notes were redeemable for silver from the U.S. Treasury upon demand. Similar to today’s U.S. currency, the certificates came in multiple denominations that indicated how much silver they could be redeemed for.
A brief history of the silver certificate dollar bill
In early United States history, banks had greater control over paper currency. Any bank could issue a note and claim that it could be redeemed for gold or silver. The catch was that the note had to be redeemed at that specific bank.
Because of this, it was not difficult for a dishonest individual to make arrangements with a printer and create counterfeit notes from a bank that was either located far away or altogether nonexistent. Because there was no federal standard, it was only when the payee attempted to redeem the note that they realized they had been scammed.
Understandably, the general public began to lose trust in paper currency. Insisting on gold or silver for transactions kept them from being cheated. It also led to large withdrawals of silver and gold from bank reserves. Large purchases became difficult and inconvenient because of the sheer number of coins needed for each transaction.
Restoring trust in paper money
The United States government needed to restore public trust in paper money and make larger purchases more convenient. In 1878, Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act, a law that allowed the federal government to issue silver certificates. These certificates served as proof that the Treasury had stored the silver dollars in Treasury vaults, which could be redeemed by the bearer on demand.
The law also obligated the government to purchase large amounts of silver each year, worth between $2 million and $4 million. This drove up the value of silver, while the guaranteed value of the certificates made large transactions more convenient.
Discontinuation of the silver certificate
For many years, the face value of a silver dollar was greater than the value of the silver that went into the coin. But in the early 1960s, a rise in demand for silver also increased its market price.
To avoid a shortage of silver bullion, the U.S. government announced the retirement of silver certificates in 1963. Individuals who held certificates could continue to redeem them for silver coins until March 1964. Silver certificates could continue to be exchanged for the equivalent dollar amount in silver bullion granules until June 1968, after which point it was no longer possible to redeem silver certificates.
Series of silver certificates
Silver certificate dollar bills were released in five main series. These are referred to by the years they were designed, not the years the notes themselves were issued.
Series 1878 and 1880
The first silver certificates were known as Certificates of Deposit. While fully backed by the U.S. Treasury Department, these silver dollars were not accepted for all transactions: they could be used as payment for customs and taxes, but not for transactions between individuals.
Available in denominations from $10 to $10,000, this series consisted of large-size silver certificates measuring 3.125 inches by 7.375 inches. Due to their size, these silver certificates were referred to as “horse blankets” and set the standard size for silver certificate dollar bills until 1923.
Series 1886, 1891, and 1908
Both the 1886 and the 1891 series featured Martha Washington on the face of the certificate. This series continued the previous denominations while also expanding to include $1 notes.
This series highlighted neoclassical designs and is often referred to as the “Educational Series.” They feature allegorical figures of History, Science, and Electricity instructing children and adults.
These silver certificates are often considered the most beautifully designed paper money ever issued by the United States. The series consisted of $1, $2, and $5 notes, and Martha Washington was again featured on the $1 note, this time along with George Washington.
The 1899 series kept the same denominations as the 1896 series. The $1 series is known as the Black Eagle note, as this particular silver certificate has an eagle on its face. The $5 note, also known as the “Indian Chief Note,” is easily recognized by its artistic depiction of a Native American chief: Running Antelope of the Hunkpapa group in the Lakota Sioux tribe.
This series only consisted of $1 and $5 notes and was the last series of large-size silver certificates. In 1928, paper money began to be printed on smaller notes, which remain the standard size for U.S. paper currency today.
This series marked the last major change in silver certificates, though minor changes also occurred in 1934, 1935, 1953, and 1957. These are the most common silver certificates, with a design so similar to the standard dollar bill that they are often mistaken for each other.
What is the value of my silver certificate?
All silver certificates are still legal tender, so at the very least they are worth the face value printed on the note. None of them are redeemable for silver coins or bullion, but they are often worth more than face value to collectors because of their historical significance. The value of a silver certificate depends on its condition, the series of the note, the serial number, and the signature authorizing the note.
The condition of the note has the greatest impact on its value. A note that has obviously been in circulation or mistreated has little value to collectors. However, a well-preserved note in mint condition is highly prized and can be worth thousands of dollars.
Based on a numerical scale of 1 to 70, a silver certificate is given a grade of good, very good, fine, very fine, extremely fine, almost uncirculated, or crisp uncirculated. The higher the grade, the more valuable the note is.
As an example, an uncirculated 1891 $1 certificate could be worth almost $1800. The same note would be worth about $125 in very good condition, but only about $1 in poor condition.
The older the series, the higher the value, as notes from newer series are fairly common and less desirable to collectors. Even though the 1923 series was the last to be printed in a large size, there are thousands of them still available and they are fairly easy to obtain. Uncirculated 1923 notes can only net you up to $170.
Notes from the 1896 series with Martha Washington on the back, on the other hand, are worth far more. These can be valued as high as $3,000 in uncirculated condition. Similarly, an uncirculated 1899 Black Eagle note can be worth over $6,000.
The serial number can raise the value of the note if it is unusual in any way. Collectors value serial numbers that consist of repeating sequences, a palindrome (numbers that read the same forward and backward), very high numbers, very low numbers, or a single repeated digit.
Some serial numbers also have a star in them, and bills with these numbers are called “star notes.” The star is not a misprint — it actually indicates that the bill is a replacement banknote for a misprinted bill — but it does make the note more valuable.
Though it may be hard to believe, there was a time when each certificate was hand-signed by an authorized individual. In 1878, these signers included the Treasurer of the United States and the Register of the Treasury. Some signatures are very rare, and the rarer the signature, the more valuable the certificate.
How much is a $1 silver certificate worth?
The value depends on the rarity and condition of the individual note. Because it is legal tender, it will be worth at least $1. Rare and mint condition $1 notes can be worth several thousands of dollars.
What is a 1957 $1 silver certificate worth?
One-dollar silver certificates from 1957 are not considered rare. In very fine condition, they can be worth approximately $3.75. If they are high-grade and uncirculated, they are worth about $12 at most.
What is the rarest silver certificate?
Some of the rarest certificates are from the 1928 series. There were six subseries released, and of those, the C, D, and E series are considered very rare.
Are silver certificates still valid?
Yes. Silver certificates can no longer be redeemed for silver coins, but they are still worth their face value in dollars.
- Silver certificates were created in 1878 to restore public trust in paper money and facilitate large transactions.
- The silver certificate dollar bill was discontinued in the 1960s, but the notes remain legal tender and retain value as collectible pieces of American monetary history.
- All silver certificate dollar bills are worth at least their face value, though rarer notes can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The 1896 silver certificate series, for example, is still considered by many to be the most beautiful artwork on United States paper currency and is therefore highly prized by collectors.
- Certificates issued after 1934 are common and usually not worth much more than their face value.
- A silver certificate has much greater value to a collector if it is rare and in mint condition.
A note from an early series of silver certificates is a beautiful example of artistic currency, but it also holds historical significance. Being backed by silver deposits, silver certificates had a tremendous impact on the U.S. economy by restoring public trust in paper money.
Though no longer printed since 1963, silver certificates are commonly found in circulation today. Rare certificates in exceptional condition have the highest numismatic value, while those that are common or in poor condition are usually worth little more than face value.
Because of their low cost, silver certificates are an inexpensive entry point to collecting currency. However, they aren’t especially valuable as investments; there are many more reliable ways to invest money for the future. Check out our investment guide to learn what options are available and find out which would be the best fit for you.
View Article Sources
- Procedures for Exchanging Silver – US Mint
- Martha on Money: The History of the Martha Washington Silver Certificate – The Washington Papers
- 1899 Series $5 Silver Certificate – East Texas Digital Archives, Stephen F. Austin State University
- Defining Money by Its Functions – Principles of Macroeconomics 2e, OpenEd CUNY
Jesse Hughes is a personal finance writer who loves to research complex and poorly understood topics and explain them in plain English. Jess has a background in technical writing and over a decade of experience working with mechanical engineers, so he understands the value of clear and precise writing when covering complex topics.