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As the name implies, Gold Certificates were currency that were redeemable in gold coin. They were first authorized by Congress in 1863, and remained in circulation until 1933. Well, sort of, because it's pretty unlikely that most of the denominations would have been circulated in day to day business. After all, one hundred years ago, a hundred dollars was a lot of money.
In their initial issue, they were printed in $20, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 denominations, making them more likely to have been used as interbank funds transfer instruments than pocket change. This is really a shame, because some of them were awful pretty.
Over the life of the type, Gold Certificates were also printed in $10 and $50 denominations.
In 1933, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act, which among other things, made possession of gold certificates to be illegal. That makes the Series 1934 Gold Certificates the most interesting of all, as they were never released into circulation. Presumably, those Series 1934 notes were used as interbank funds transfer instruments. The most exciting of those was the Series 1934 $100,000 note, bearing the portrait of Woodrow Wilson.
Despite the fact that ownership of Gold Certificates was illegal for thirty years, many remained in the hands of collectors, meaning that for a time, they had the distinction of being contraband US currency. In 1964, possession of gold certificates was re-legalized, although redemption for gold was not reinstituted (not surprisingly).
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