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In the early 1900s, you could buy a newspaper for 5 cents, a pound of apples for 10 cents and the average salary was about \$40 a month.

Nowadays, an issue of the NYT costs \$2.50 , a pound of apples can cost \$1.15 per pound and the median monthly income is about \$2,200.

Today, it makes sense to have a \$100 bill, we can spend it all on a meal at a restaurant and you would need a few of them to pay rent or make a car payment. But in 1900, I can't imagine anything that could be bought with a $100 bill. Perhaps rent? Or a worker's wages?

Compared to the average salary in 1900, a \$100 bill would be the comparable to a $5,500 bill. I can't imagine anything costing that much money today that would justify producing such a highly valued denomination.

My question is: why did we produce \$100 bills in the early 1900s, when there was probably no practical use for them? And also, did people carry $20 bills around in their wallets or were these considered big money?

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  • $\begingroup$ My guess would be that with the development of communication technologies credit became more reliable. With telephones it was no longer necessary to carry around a million dollars and face the risk of it being stolen. Instead one could write a check and the receiving party could verify credit via telephone. Latter this was further simplified by bank transfers. $\endgroup$ – Giskard May 24 '15 at 5:59
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Even back in the 19th century, the American economist Dunbar reported then that 90% of all financial transactions were being performed as transfers using cheques or bills of payment.

However, in the absence of modern electronic clearing systems, all transfers of money between banks, i.e. all payments with cheques that are drawn on the account of one bank's customer account, and transferred to an account at a different bank, had to be performed via. cash transfers between the banks.

In practice banks used netting operations where they would add up all the cheques being submitted to them, subtract all cheques being drawn on them for payment to another bank, and only transfer the difference. Even so sizeable sums were involved, and these required the higher denomination bills.

Today this is all done through electronic clearing systems, so the main demand for large denominated physical cash tends to come from a desire to avoid taxation, criminal activity, or gambling.

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There were plenty of relatively large purchases that were regular enough to buy with large amounts of cash. If you wanted to buy a Model T in 1909 you'd need \$825-\$1000. A typical house could easily cost a few thousand dollars in an age when mortgage finance was much less common. So there were plenty of expensive things to need significant cash for, at least occasionally.

But why cash? The most important part of the answer is bounced checks. If you need to pay someone a lot of money by check you have problem. If Abby gives Betty a check and Abby walks off with the goods and the check bounces, Betty will have a problem. If Abby pays Betty but doesn't give Abby the goods until the check clears, Abby may have a problem if Betty never shows up with the goods after the check clears. You can do escrow, but that's expensive and complicated. Cash allows instantaneous settlement.

Other options existing in this era have other problems. Cashier's and certified checks, as well as money orders may serve in some cases, but don't easily allow negotiation because they denomination is fixed at the time of issuance. Wire transfers have existed since the age of the telegraph but like today remain an expensive technology for everyday use.

Hundred dollar bills are the (update: second) most common denomination today, which may surprise you: bill share Source: New estimates of U.S. currency abroad, the domestic money supply and the unreported Economy

This is mostly because the dollar is used internationally for business transactions.

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    $\begingroup$ "Hundred dollar bills are the most common denomination today". This is not what your graphic shows. It doesn't show the percentage of bills by denomination, but of currency by denomination, ie a 100$ note is counted 100 times when a 1$ note is counted once only. $\endgroup$ – VicAche May 24 '15 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @VicAche The source BKay linked reads "(...)To put these figures in perspective, they imply that the average American‟s bulging wallet holds 91 pieces of U.S. paper currency, consisting of: 31 one dollar bills; 7 fives; 5 tens; 21 twenties; 4 fifties and 23 one hundred dollar bills". So indeed it is not 70% of circulation counted in pieces, but it still is second only to one-dollar bills. $\endgroup$ – Alecos Papadopoulos May 25 '15 at 14:39

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