What Is a Silver Certificate?
Contributed by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez
Have you ever heard of a silver certificate and wondered what it is? Or, perhaps you’ve found one of these old pieces of paper currency in circulation or in a collection you inherited and want to know more about why they were made and what they’re worth.
Silver certificates were issued from 1878 through 1964 and were originally redeemable for their face value of silver dollars, but in the years since the elimination of circulating precious metal coins, they can no longer be redeemed for their equivalent face value in silver coinage.
However, silver certificates are still legal tender and 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, which demonetized silver and abolished the right of those in possession of silver to have their bullion coined into legal tender money.
The act, affirming the place of the gold standard in the United States, 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 policies enacted by the law, often derisively called “The Crime of ’73,” caused much aggravation among the millions who supported the so-called Free Silver movement of the late 19th century. Those in favor of free silver included populist Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose 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 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 were issued in denominations ranging from $10 to $1,000, and 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,” an exaggerative reference to the larger size of the note as compared to modern, smaller-dimension currency introduced in 1928.
The small-size silver certificates made from the late 1920s through 1960s were issued in denominations of only $1, $5, and $10.
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
While there are numerous factors that 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, and the date or series is located on the obverse (or front) of the note, as 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, with 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, which 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 (such as a birthday or anniversary) that would otherwise appear ordinary to most other people.
The majority of silver certificates available today are common pieces made since the 1930s, including 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, and such pieces listed above in circulated condition and without errors or other valuable anomalies are worth only a few dollars above their respective face values.
Collecting Silver Certificates
There are many ways to collect silver certificates. Some collectors pursue all series and Federal Reserve seals of a single denomination, while 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 spanning 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. Not only will buying high-quality silver certificates help you build a better, more attractive collection, but higher-grade pieces with few to no detracting marks also tend to fare better value wise 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: