The Real Reason Why Living People Will Never Appear on Dollar Bills

Have you ever noticed that no one alive is ever on dollar bills? Well, there's a reason for that—and you can blame a man named Spencer M. Clark.

Here’s-the-Real-Reason-Why-Living-People-Will-Never-Appear-on-Dollar-Billsvia National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution

In 1866, the United States Congress passed a law prohibiting portraits of living persons from appearing on any bonds, securities, monetary notes, or postal currency, which is still in effect today. You can blame Spencer M. Clark, the superintendent of the National Currency Bureau in the 1860s, for why you will never see your face (or any celebrity’s) printed on money anytime soon—at least not in this lifetime. That’s just one fascinating tidbit most people don’t know. We bet you never knew these 16 mind-blowing facts about money, either.

During the Civil War, people started hoarding silver and gold coins for their precious metal content. In order to battle the coin shortage, the U.S. Treasury issued paper coins in the form of three-cent, five-cent, 10-cent notes, and so forth.

As superintendent, Spencer played a significant role in the design and supervision of the new bill. By the third issue of the five-cent note, Congress asked the currency bureau to print the face of William Clark, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition explorer, on the note. But when the document arrived on Spencer’s desk, it allegedly only read a name bearing one word—Clark. With this document, Spencer made a bold but foolish move to plaster his own face on the bill.

Frustrations erupted amongst Congress once they saw that the white-haired bearded man on the note bore no resemblance to the redheaded William Clark. One congressman, Russell Thayer from Pennsylvania, was particularly appalled by Spencer’s buffoonery and advocated to amend the U.S. currency law.

“Whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes,” Thayer proclaimed to Congress. “It is derogatory to the dignity and the self-respect of the nation, and I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of “Off with their heads!”

And so, it was off with Spencer’s head—on the bill! On April 7, 1866, Congress passed Thayer’s amendment stating that U.S. money will never feature a “portrait or likeness of any living person” again.

Think you know everything about money? Take this quiz to test how “current” you are on American currency.

[Source: Atlas Obscura]

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Ashley Lewis
Ashley is an Assistant Editor at Reader’s Digest. She received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. Before joining Reader’s Digest, she was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News and interned at Seventeen and FOX News. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.