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Will Purple Make you Look for Red and Blue?
September 21, 2007

Yesterday's debut of the new design for the $5 Federal Reserve Note is good news for collectors. Any time a design is changed on notes or coins, the public notices and some discover numismatics in the process.

Regular design changes to U.S. paper money began occurring in 1996 with the advent of what hobbyists call the "Big Head" design for the $100 Federal Reserve Note. It was no accident that the paper money hobby really took off following this event.

We have since cycled through $50s, $20s and $10s. Some have changed a couple of times, with the most recent generation of notes having subtle shades of color.

Subtle may be good. The Treasury was worried about negative public reaction to bold use of color.

The new $5 will have a large purple "5" on the lower left of the back of the note, or is it lavender or mauve? Which name is more subtle?

But whether the Treasury worries about color are justified or not, they have definitely succeeded in the past 11 years with making the public comfortable with new notes.

I looked in my wallet to pull a $5 and a $10 as references and it occurred to me that the $10 is the first generation of Big Head note, not the second, so older notes obviously are still circulating side by side with the current series without many people noticing a difference.

Subtle colors may be good for another reason. It distinguishes current paper money from the earlier issues that ran from the 1860s to the 1960s. Few remember the blue seals of Silver Certificates and the red seals of United States Notes. Almost nobody recalls yellow seals of Gold Certificates. These colors helped the public make distinctions between types of paper and payment. Now color is solely a counterfeit deterrent.

The idea of having different classes of money sounds odd or quaint, but finding out about them as a collector is exciting.

Whether the "5" on the $5 is purple or not is not the question. The question is how many people who happen to notice the color at all will go on to find the bolder colors on the notes of prior generations and avidly collect them? I think quite a few.

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About the Author
David C. Harper has been a coin collector since 1963. He joined the Krause Publications editorial staff in 1978 and is currently editor of Numismatic News and World Coin News. He also edits two books annually, North American Coins & Prices and Coin Digest. He is the author of the Class of '63 column that runs each week in Numismatic News. His first bylined numismatic article appeared in the June 1971 issue of Coins Magazine and his various Krause Publications assignments included a stint as editor of the magazine 1980-1983. Harper received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1977. He had a double major of journalism and economics.

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