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October 21, 2004 09:43 AM

Broken: U.S. coinage

[Not actually broken, but an interesting point on coinage design. -mh]

Daniel Brown writes:

When traveling abroad, I've always admired other countries for their use of color in their currency. I believe Australia has another unique angle in printing their money on the same material used for FedEx envelopes, making it quite difficult to tear. I even marvel at the ability of other countries to make their paper currency different sizes based on their denomination.

The U.S. Mint, on the other hand, breaks all of those rules - plus one. All of our paper money, from a $1.00 to a $100.00 bill, are exactly the same size, and for those visiting the U.S. from abroad, our coins do not have a number value stamped on them. There is no "1" on a penny, no "5" on a nickel, no "25" on a quarter. It says "five cents" and, if our alphabet is something you can read, you're in good shape. A dime says only "one dime". You'd need to know what the heck a dime is to know what you're holding.

Our paper money has numbers on it; why not the coins?


The mint could remove that whole "In God We Trust" business to clear space for a digit.

Posted by: Rob at October 21, 2004 11:59 AM

Right on!!!

Posted by: Steve Garfield at October 21, 2004 01:21 PM

how hard would it be to print a small little number somewhere on the coin besides the date that the coin was pressed?

Posted by: Thorny at October 21, 2004 01:57 PM

We have a similar problem with coins in Argentina.

5-cent and 10-cent coins are the same color, and almost the same size.

Same thing happens for 25-cent and 50-cent coins.

You have to look closely at the coin to tell the value (which can be hard in the dark).

The funny thing is, they could have corrected it. Some years ago, they started making 5 and 25 cent coins in a different color. But, for some reason, they are changing it back...

Posted by: Diego at October 21, 2004 02:05 PM

Actually, that's not quite true.

The penny does say "one cent" and the nickel does say "five cents" (although it's in words, not numbers). The quarter is even almost possible to grok, since it says "quarter dollar". The dime, however, says "one dime". Lame. :-p

Posted by: Brad Wilson at October 21, 2004 03:11 PM

When I was in Australia I discovered that 20c coins from New Zealand look (on one side) almost exactly like the Australian 20c coins. Apparently that's not the case for other denominations. Weird.

Posted by: Sean at October 21, 2004 04:10 PM

Really, why don't US coins have numbers on them??

Oh, I geat it, to make foreigners pays too much and think thay are paying the right amount.

Posted by: Chris at October 21, 2004 05:35 PM

Australian Notes :

And yes, they are made of polymer so they all survive going through a washing machine.

Posted by: tony at October 21, 2004 06:10 PM

The other good thing about Aussie notes (and other countries) is they are all different colours - or colors, if you like :o)

The benefits of being able to distinguish value at a glance are obvious.

Posted by: Steve at October 21, 2004 07:26 PM

The NZ 5, 10, and 20 cent pieces are the same weight and dimensions as their Australian counterparts. Both vending machines and retailers on both sides of the Tasman will accept either, and occasionally you will receive one of the other country's in your change.

Posted by: Simon at October 21, 2004 10:25 PM

Also dimes are smaller than 1 and 5 cent pieces. What's up with that? In New Zealand, the coins grow in size along with the denomination (though that changes when you get to dollar coins, admittedly)

NZ's notes are also printed on the same material as Australian notes, cause we have our notes printed over there.

Posted by: Alden Bates at October 22, 2004 12:59 AM

I enjoy how they continue to change the US paper currency to help prevent counterfeiting - but they still accept the old currency as legal tender. So why not just counterfeit the old paper currency?

Like the Australian notes. Very colorful!

Posted by: Eric at October 22, 2004 10:12 PM

Other currency trivia I've picked up while travelling around:

At least one Thai 50(?) Baht note is polymerized, and even has a transparent "window"; lower denominations are paper.

Japanese 5 and 50 Yen coins have holes in them, as do some Norwegian coins (forget the denominations).

Some British Hong Kong coins varied quite a bit in thickness as well as being irregularly shaped - "ruffled" edges, for example.

The Canadian "Loonie" ($2) coin uses two different metals, as does the new Brazilian 1 real coin.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something ...

Posted by: Tim at October 24, 2004 09:37 AM

Just a note-

The 'Loonie' is actually the $1 coin, referred to as such because it has a Loon on it.

The $2 Canadian coin is referred to as the Twoonie, because we're just really lame.

(The $2 coin is the one with two metals though.)

Posted by: Owen at October 24, 2004 09:13 PM

What is it with the U.S. refusing to use systems that are obviously better? The metric system is another example.

Posted by: never mind that at October 24, 2004 09:38 PM

Alden Bates asked why dimes are smaller than one-cent and five-cent pieces. The dime formerly was minted from silver. If it were larger than a five-cent piece, the silver content would have been worth more than the coin, and people would have melted down the dimes for the silver.

Why they're _still_ smaller, now that there's no silver in them, can only be attributed to tradition or resistance to change.

Posted by: D.F. Manno at October 24, 2004 10:29 PM

In Mexico, the 20 pesos bill is made of polymer, making it very resistant, and it features a small transparent window to make it harder to be forged. Together with the 50 pesos bill, they are smaller in size than those of larger denominations.

Posted by: SAM at October 25, 2004 08:20 PM

"Different denominations of paper money should be different sizes." Consider that thoguht the next time you use a vending machine of any sort. Or put those bills in your wallet.

"The benefits of being able to distinguish value at a glance are obvious." The next time you have US bills of different denominations, notice the large portraits on the front and the artwork on the back. There is sufficient difference between them to no need different colors.

The lack of numbers on American currency and inconsistent coin sizes haven't brought the economy to a screeching halt nor stopped foreigners of all stripes from using it all over the world.

Posted by: Moneybags at October 25, 2004 09:07 PM

We are the only country in the word to have "one dime." Other countries have "ten cents." We used to have a "Half Dime" as well, and a "Half" Cent".

We're a country based on fractions!

Posted by: Robert at October 25, 2004 10:09 PM

Tradition is one of the reasons the coin sizes haven't changed. The other is the huge resistance on the part of vending machine companies. The latter is the main reason why we don't get a dollar coin that's much bigger than a quarter.

Posted by: Jim at October 25, 2004 11:09 PM

As well as size, shape and weight, Australian coins have different milling patterns around the edges. The 5, 10 and 20 cent coins have one pattern; the 50 cent coin is a polygon; and the heavier $1 and $2 gold coins use different milling patterns so you can tell them apart from the others just by running a fingernail along the edge.

More about our coin design standards:

Posted by: flipsockgrrl at October 26, 2004 01:48 AM

Here are the norwegian bills and coins

Posted by: MrTesdnil at October 26, 2004 05:38 AM

I had to comment on these from Moneybags. He is either mind-numbingly ignorant or a supreme ironist.

>> "Different denominations of paper money should be different sizes." Consider that thoguht the next time you use a vending machine of any sort. Or put those bills in your wallet.>"The benefits of being able to distinguish value at a glance are obvious." The next time you have US bills of different denominations, notice the large portraits on the front and the artwork on the back. There is sufficient difference between them to no need different colors.>The lack of numbers on American currency and inconsistent coin sizes haven't brought the economy to a screeching halt nor stopped foreigners of all stripes from using it all over the world.

Just because something is used doesn't make it good. The "dollar" as used throughout the world is a means of trade and rarely the "dollar" you find in your pocket.

Posted by: Keith Collyer at October 26, 2004 08:21 AM

The only flaw in the "look at the president's faces" on the front of bills to discern their value is that not everyone who uses money can see. In fact, a rather sizable portion of them cannot, or cannot to the degree necessary to determine denomination.

Vending machines are a poor excuse. Since they are the attractors OF money, it should be their job to adjust to the needs necessary to accept money, no matter what size it is. I've noticed theft prevention in vending machines has kept right up with the times. They're now small fortresses.

Want to keep them the same size? Cool. Put a bar code on them and hand out readers that can tell you what denomination they are.

I stand by my original post. This is broken.

Posted by: danielsan at October 26, 2004 03:10 PM

>>The next time you have US bills of different denominations, notice the large portraits on the front and the artwork on the back. There is sufficient difference between them to no need different colors.

I have many times gotten in arguements with clerks because they've mistaken my 20$ bill for a 10$ bill...

Posted by: never mind that at October 26, 2004 03:11 PM

Australian notes and coins are of a different size to help blind people distinguish them. Another distinguishing feature is the pattern of the grooves around the edge of coins. They too are different.

Posted by: Waratah at October 26, 2004 11:14 PM

guess what? we have vending machines in new zealand and australia and they seem to work just fine with our different sized banknotes. nooge.

Posted by: jake at October 27, 2004 02:04 AM

If you are interested in looking at specimens and learning more about the Euro, check out . Specific information about the features for the visually impaired is available:



Posted by: Henning at October 27, 2004 07:35 AM

From memory (and I could be wrong), the Australians differ from the Kiwis in that their two dollar coin is actually smaller than the one dollar coin. Here in NZ we follow the more logical route of making two dollars larger.

It was explained to me that this is solely to help Australian taxi drivers rip off visiting New Zealanders.

Posted by: James at October 27, 2004 09:09 PM

Taiwan's 50 dollar coins even have a hollagram on the back. A hollagram on a coin! There is a circle in the center of the back of the coin. If viewed from one angle, it says "50" in roman characters. Viewed from an opposite angle, it says "50" in Chinese characters. These coins are new and replace the old 50 dollar coins which were made of two different metals, a silver colored outer ring and a copper center.

Posted by: Ed at October 28, 2004 04:11 AM

U.S. paper currency is already in the process of being $20 are highlighted with peach, and the new $50 is highlighted with red and blue. They're working on the other notes.

Posted by: Jay at October 28, 2004 01:01 PM

And if you haven't seen the new US $50 yet, check it out:

Posted by: Jay at October 28, 2004 01:02 PM

Romanian notes are also plasticky and hard to tear.

Posted by: nick at October 29, 2004 06:59 PM

Yeah, I saw a news item about the new $50 bill when I was in the US about a month ago. The red and blue seemed barely distinguishable. I took a couple of photos of English and US notes of comparable value: the English £10 note and the US $20, at (face) and (reverse). The English note has multiple colours, raised printing, complex engraving, hologram, watermark (in the oval at the bottom of the note), broken thread (there's a complete metallic thread which you can't see in the face photo, in the reverse you see it as a broken line). The reverse is even more colourful.

By contrast the US note is lacking, well, contrast. It does have big numbers in the corners. I kept my notes sorted in value order so I didn't make horrible mistakes.

It's kind of ironic that the £10 note features Charles Darwin while the $20 features the motto 'In God We Trust'.

I was surprised at the existence of the $1 bill. It's worth 60p. The smallest note we have is £5 - we phased out the £1 note in England about 20 years ago. Since then virtually every coin has changed size; the only ones to retain their post-decimalisation size are the 1p and 2p coins (old examples read NEW PENNY/NEW PENCE rather than ONE PENNY/TWO PENCE, but all UK coins have numerals). However, these 'copper' coins were changed about 10 years ago to be a thin layer of copper over steel, rather than their previous cupro-nickel composition.

In decreasing order of size, we now have: £2 (bimetallic), 50p (seven-sided), 2p, 10p (silver copper-nickel), £1 ('gold'), 20p (seven-sided), 1p, 5p ('silver'). All circular coins over 2p in value have milled edges. Designs remain static except for special commemorations on the £2 and 50p coins, except for the £1 coin which changes design every year, rotating between English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and symbols meant to represent the UK as a whole (typically the royal coat-of-arms). Currently I have a 1995 £1 featuring a crowned leek (Wales) and a 1997 coin featuring the three lions of England.

Most of the coins have a crown on the back - 1p has a crowned chained portcullis gate that's the badge of Parliament, 2p the three feathers of the Prince of Wales, 5p a crowned thistle, 10p a crowned lion, the 20p a crowned Tudor rose, 50p has a representation of Britannia. The £2 coin was introduced under the current Labour government and has a very republican feel - the reverse has a collection of circuits and gears, with the edge inscription 'Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants'. The newest £1 coin designs seem to be based on bridges - the current design is the Forth Railway Bridge, while next year's is to be the Menai Straits bridge.

I'm surprised the US keeps the 1 cent coin. We abandoned the 1/2p 20 years ago.

Posted by: Mike Dimmick at October 29, 2004 08:28 PM

Who usess cash anymore? That's what debit cards are for ;)

Posted by: Please Stop Me at October 30, 2004 09:11 PM

> The mint could remove that whole "In God We Trust"

But then how would we let people know that Money Is the God of America?

Posted by: J. Scott at October 31, 2004 02:39 PM

being Australian, I've had fun in the US with all the notes looking the same - the pervasive feeling `Did I give that guy a 20 or a 10?'.

What most troubled me was using coins.

`How much more do I need to give you?'

`A nickel'

`Uh....' (holds out handful of coins, lets the person serving take what they want while receiving a stare that suggest I must be stupid).

Posted by: Tom at November 2, 2004 02:44 AM

To add to Mike Dimmick's very comprehensive brief surve of UK currency:

Scots and Northern Irish private banks still produce £1 notes which are in general circulation (the Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank, at least).

The £2 coin mentioned has a design intented to represent the industrial, electronics, computing and communications "ages" and another I forget (no £2 coin to hand I'm afraid). "Standing on the shoulders of giants" refers to Newton, I guess (who was on the £1 note of my childhood) though it's said he said it as a slight about a diminutive rival whose name keeps escaping me as I write.

I had great delight explaining all this to my 10-year-old Canadian niece when I gave her a set. Her comment was, "wow, ours are just coins". Not true, of course; but I can't think of a better artefact in everyday use that has so *much* design in it.

A few other observations:

The vending machine companies didn't complain too much when they had to switch to the euro.

No-one yet seems to have mentioned that the US and Canada are unusual in their 1-5-10-25-nothingelseatalluntilwegetto-100 system. In all of Europe, I think even before the Euro, it always went 1-2-5-10 all the way up (the 10 of one subsequence being the 1 of the next). There *were* some gaps that filled in the UK currency-- 20p and £2-- but the principle has always been 1-2-5-10 (since decimalization).

Although in the UK we (currently) have Darwin on the £20, on all coin there is (an abbreviated variant of) the words "ELIZABETH REGINA. DEI GRATIA FIDEI DEFENSOR." -- usually Elizabeth Reg. D.G. F.D. -- which means, Queen Elizabeth, by God's grace Defender of the Faith". Canadian coins also have this.

As a parting note, you can often use a UK 10p in a vending machine requiring a Canadian quarter. A US quarter won't work, usually.

Posted by: Simon Trew at November 3, 2004 05:13 PM

I have a relative who works at the US Treasury's Bureau of the Mint. They make coins. The director is a political appointee who does what looks good for them to move up the bureaucratic ladder (cabinet posts, ambassadorships, etc.) The politics are INCREDIBLE.

For humor's sake, Treasury has another department, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, that makes paper money. They are mandated to COMPETE both against outside agencies and within Treasury.

That's the story behind the Sacajawea dollar coin. It was designed to be tactily(?), visually, metalurgically different (for vending machine reading) from other coins. But Printing and Engraving was never told/ordered/mandated to discontinue the dollar bill. No internal agency cooperation = low adoption rate.

Thank goodness we're exporting our form of government elsewhere. The net reduction in foreign efficiency should give the U.S. a chance on the global stage!

Posted by: Todd in TX at November 5, 2004 12:39 PM

In response to the guy who said we are the only nation that uses the dime- you are wrong! China has "one dime". It is "yi mao" (yi= 1st tone, mao=2nd tone) I knew my Chinese class would come in handy! And you can't simply say "two fifty-five" in Chinese, you have to say "two dollars, five dimes, and five pennies" or "liang kuai wu mao wu fen" And you think we're confusing...

Posted by: Bill McCormick at November 11, 2004 07:12 AM

BTW- I have lived in England for a year and a half and I must say that I think the one dollar bill is a good idea. I like notes because they are lighter and don't jingle around in your pockets. Especially 1 pound coins, those are heavy! I'm also more apt to lose coinage than notes. 5 pound notes wound up folded neatly in my wallet and my coins wound up being tossed out of my pocket and thrown on my desk after a long night at the pub...

Posted by: Bill McCormick at November 11, 2004 07:22 AM

As for vending machines not liking differnt size notes, here in Switzerland they solve that problem by making them different lengths, but all the same width. The 1,000 Chf Note is roughly twice the length of the $10 ChF note, then the other denominations increase in size according to value. Hard to imagine a vending machine bill scanner that couldn't handle bills being a different length.

Posted by: Glenn MacStravic at November 11, 2004 12:14 PM

Chinese money, @#$%^#$&#%&*$#%^&!!!!

1) There's a bill that's the equivalent of 10 cents--about 1 cent US.

2) The coins all have #'s on them--but only one digit. I have in front of me two coins--1 that says "1", one that says "5". Without knowing Chinese you wouldn't know the latter is worth half of what the former is. I do not have the other two coins in front of me so I'm going on memory but I think they also have a 1 and a 5. Values, 10 cents and 5 cents. This second 5 coin is also bigger. Somehow I have spent a total of months there without encountering this last coin until the most recent trip--my wife says they were around but I find it hard to believe as if they existed I should have gotten them in change before (I did make one routine purchase that should have produced one.) I puzzled over it and finally tried to spend it as if it was a new version of the 5 coin I was used to. Fortunately, I had poured my coins into my hand, the clerk realized my predicament and reached out and collected the correct coins.

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at November 20, 2004 11:25 PM

US bills stay the same size and colors because the public wants it that way. Or at least the surveys done by BEP tilt the responses that way. The colors are almost the same as used since the civil war. "In god we trust" was added around 130 years ago.

Coin acceptors (the part of the vending machine that takes the money) don't take 50 cent coins, nor dollar coins because of business decisions back in the 1950s. One or more mismanagers decided that they did not want to give 45 cents change when the customer purchased a 5 cent soda. Therefore, they won't take coins larger than a quarter. Sodas are over $1 in many places, but still refuse to take 50 cent and 1 dollar coins.

50 cent and 1 dollar coins are rare enough that most cashiers don't know what they look like or where to place them.

For fun in the US, get some $2 bills and spend them. Many cashiers will think they are $20 and give you change for a $20.

Posted by: Peter at January 23, 2005 11:46 AM

im really interested in all the different weights of the australian coins and what metal they are made out of. they seem alot heavier than other countries

Posted by: sarah at May 3, 2005 04:53 AM

Does anyone know the weight of a US $50 bill? Or the weight of a bundle of 100 of them? I'm trying to figure out how many would fit in a briefcase.

Posted by: Ming at May 5, 2005 01:56 AM

The denomination "dime" exists as a vestige of early U.S. currency which was supposed to be 10-based instead of 100-based. The system was

10 mils = 1 cent

10 cents = 1 dime

10 dimes = 1 dollar

10 dollars = 1 eagle

You would have a price that looked like 3.2.5 (3 dollars, 2 dimes, 5 cents) but eventually the 1-100 system used everywhere else took hold.

The quarter is also a vestige of the Spanish milled dollar which was accepted as legal tender until 1857. The coin did not have fractional parts and change was often made by cutting it into halves, quarters and eights (hence the storied "piece of eight"!) The 25c piece was minted for compatibility, and has stuck around ever since. There was an attempt to introduce a 20-cent piece but it was essentially the same size and design as a quarter. It flopped after three years because too many people were being cheated out of 5 cents on transactions, a large amount at the time (ca. 1870).

Half dollars circulated regularly until 1964 when the Mint (1) put JKF's image on the coin and (2) continued to mint it out of silver while all other coins were changed to cupronickel. Halves disappeared, first as collectors' items, then because it was more profitable to melt them than spend them. By the time silver was removed the coin had been out of use for so long that most stores and vending machines no longer accepted them.

Finally, a major reason the dollar coin has failed is because the U.S. refuses to eliminate the dollar note. The company that makes the paper has *extremely* strong political connections and lobbies fiercely to keep its contracts every time anyone proposes getting rid of the paper note.

Oh .. and as far as metrication, remember, the U.S. is the country that doesn't believe in evolution, national health care, conserving fuel, and any number of other progressive causes. So why should something like counting by tens matter? After all, those metrics things are used only by them dang foreigners, right?

Posted by: JeffK at October 28, 2005 09:30 PM

Moneybags, I'm sure, was being clueless, not ironic.

If I recall correctly, vending machines can sense the metal impregnated in the paper. If it can have a metal detector in it, it can probably gauge the 1/8" difference or so between bill sizes.

And while the U.S. mint is adding color to some of the bills, the mild "splash" of faint color is hardly useful, attractive, or (in my opinion) worth the extra expense to put it on there. (I'm assuming it's purely for anti-counterfeiting purposes.)

As noted above, neither of these helps with the core problem of not being able to see the bill (or being able to see it very clearly.)

The problem has been recently compounded by allowing each state a "unique" back for the quarter dollar. I've lived in this country 38 years, been spending money for most of that. I STILL think I've come across a foreign coin only to realize that it's "Iowa's" version of the quarter.

I swear, it's a conspiracy to do the OPPOSITE of solving the problem.


Posted by: Danielsan at October 31, 2005 12:04 PM

Umm,,, are you related to Dan Brown, writer of the davinci code?

Posted by: Billy at April 17, 2006 10:30 PM

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