What Is a Silver Certificate?
Contributed by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez
A silver certificate is a form of paper money that could be exchanged for silver coins on demand.
Silver certificates were issued from 1878 through 1964. They were originally redeemable for their face value of silver dollars.
This changed in the years since the elimination of circulating precious metal coins. The notes can no longer be redeemed for their equivalent face value in silver coinage.
However, silver certificates are still legal tender! They can be redeemed for their face value in Federal Reserve Notes. Many people who have stacks of heavily worn or otherwise low-value silver certificates even spend them as regular cash money.
1923 $5 Silver Certificate. Image via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]
History of Silver Certificates
The first silver certificates were issued in 1878 in the wake of the Coinage Act of 1873. This law demonetized silver. In other words, it abolished the right of those in possession of silver to have their bullion coined into legal tender money.
The act affirmed the place of the gold standard in the United States. In doing so, it ended bimetallism—a monetary standard in which there is a fixed rate of exchange between two metals (such as silver and gold) that serve as the basis for the value of a monetary unit, like the dollar.
The law is often derisively called “The Crime of ’73.” Its policies caused much aggravation among the millions who supported the Free Silver movement of the late 19th century. This included populist Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. His famous “Cross of Gold” speech advocated for the expansion of pro-silver policies.
Silver certificates were thus born in part from the socioeconomic fallout following the Coinage Act of 1873. As such, it defeated the unlimited coining of silver into money.
1896 political cartoon in Judge magazine by Grant Hamilton. Image via HistoryNet
When first issued in 1878, silver certificates came in denominations ranging from $10 to $1,000. In 1886, three more denominations were authorized with face values of $1, $2, and $5.
Through series 1923, silver certificates were printed on large-size notes measuring 3.125 inches by 7.375 inches. These large notes were often dubbed “horse blankets.” This was an exaggerated reference to the size compared to modern, smaller-dimension notes introduced in 1928.
The small certificates from the late 1920s through 1960s were only $1, $5, and $10 denominations.
What Are Silver Certificates Worth?
Most folks who own silver certificates want to know the value of their old pieces of paper money. Of course, there is no single value for any particular note. Values range widely depending on a number of factors.
These include the following:
- The denomination
- The date or series
- The Federal Reserve seal letter and number
- The physical condition of the note
- The presence of errors or varieties
- The serial number arrangement
Numerous factors go into determining what a silver certificate is worth. Many of the key value determinants can be easily recognized with just a cursory glance of the bill.
1928 $1 Silver Certificate. Image via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]
The denomination should be quite evident. The date or series is located on the obverse (or front) of the note. So is the serial number and the Federal Reserve seal and letter.
Certainly, too, the physical condition and overall wear-based grade is a major factor in the value of a silver certificate. Crisp Uncirculated notes worth more than worn or damaged pieces.
Peculiarities with the serial number can affect the value, too. Usually the most valuable thing to look for in the serial number is the placement of a small star. This indicates that note replaces a faulty one of the same serial number.
There are also premiums for a type of palindromic phenomenon known as a radar note, in which the serial numbers read the same forward and backward. Some individuals also pay premiums for serial numbers symbolizing a special personal date. It may be a birthday or anniversary. Such a number would otherwise appear ordinary to most other people.
The majority of silver certificates available today are common pieces made since the 1930s. This includes Series 1935 and 1957 $1 bills, Series 1934 and 1953 $5 bills, and Series 1934 and 1953 $10 bills. Most of these bills are extremely common in worn grades. Such pieces are worth only a few dollars above their respective face values. That's in circulated condition without any errors or other valuable anomalies.
Collecting Silver Certificates
There are many ways to collect silver certificates. Some collectors pursue all series and Federal Reserve seals of a single denomination. Others focus on collecting all denominations from a certain period.
Another idea is to build a type set consisting of one example from each denomination and of each series or signature. You might even decide to assemble a comprehensive collection of silver certificates. It would span all denominations and series from the 1870s through the 1960s.
However you decide to build a collection of silver certificates, worry not about whether there’s a right or wrong way to collect them. There isn’t. There are essentially as many methods for collecting paper currency as there are paper currency collectors. Decide the approach that is right for you, and then go after your goal with confidence.
No matter what you collect, buy the best-quality notes you can afford. Buying high-quality silver certificates help you build a better, more attractive collection. Higher-grade pieces with few to no detracting marks also tend to fare better over the long term. This helps ensure you a better chance of scoring a stronger return on your investment if and when the time comes to sell your silver certificates.
silver certificate graded by PCGS
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.
More from the author: