My Mistake Was in Not Correcting Their Mistake


Let’s talk about $2 bills for a minute. Because — as many of you wrote in to tell me — I messed something up on Wednesday. And I should know better.

First off, I’m a big fan of $2 bills. For reasons unclear to me, my grandfather used to carry some around as good luck charms, and as a result, they’ve always been special to me. When I learned, as an adult, that they’re still in production and circulation — and therefore not actually collectibles — I followed in his footsteps. I’ve occasionally gone to the bank to get some $2 bills not really for luck, but because they make good conversation pieces. Take one out when you go to pay for something and someone will almost always notice. Some people will even offer to buy one from you; in college, I once had someone offer me $5 for a $2 bill, and that was probably the easiest three dollars I ever made. 

So I’m really embarrassed that I passed along a mistake on Wednesday. I quoted WBUR, an NPR affiliate, in saying that “the government first introduced the $2 bill” in “the 1970s.” That’s wrong — and I knew better. I meant to fix that before I hit send, but, oops.

The actual timeline of the American $2 bill is the opposite of what I quoted. It was first issued during the Civil War in 1862 and was produced in various forms for over a century. In the 1950s, the Treasury realized that people really didn’t like using $2 bills — who knows why — and reduced the print run. That probably made the $2 bills even less popular, and in 1966, the Treasury finally said no more to the two-buck bills. But ten years later, they reversed course. In 1976, the $2 bill came back, most likely as a measure to cut printing costs. Inflation in the 1970s was rampant and the Treasury thought that people would switch from $1 bills to $2 bills, allowing the Treasury to save on printing costs. (It’s generally believed that the $2 bill was reintroduced as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration, but that’s more coincidence than anything else.) 

The Treasury was wrong, though. The people who didn’t like $2 bills in 1966 still didn’t like them in 1976, and once again, the Treasury ended up slowing down their production. But as I said on Wednesday, you can still get them today. (In fact, yesterday, I got twenty dollars worth at the bank, as seen here, just to demonstrate this.)

So WBUR got this fact wrong, and I knew it. While writing Wednesday’s email, I caught the mistake and made a mental note to fix it, but then forgot to fix it. I even double-checked to make sure I was right and WBUR was wrong, but — even after verifying what I thought to be true — again failed to fix their error. Oops. Sorry about that.

On the plus side, I learned something new about $2 bills in the process, something I didn’t share on Wednesday. According to Vending Machine Insider (the existence of which shows that there’s a niche publication for almost every business sector), “you can use the 2 dollar bills in vending machines. Despite the rarity of the bill, most modern vending machines can accept them. The bill is legal tender and businesses must accept them as payment, although machine operators can program the machine to reject them.” I’ll use some of my newly-acquired twos to test this when the opportunity arises.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: How an Oddball Saved the Island of Little Penguins: Includes a picture of a cute dog.

Tuesday: Life on Mars?: Not actually Mars.

Wednesday: Why The Government Hid Billion of Dollars Worth of $2 Bills: Thank you to everyone who told me that I wrote South Carolina when I should have said North Carolina. I fixed it on the archives.

Thursday: The Best Medicine is… A Room With A View?: It’s not the “best medicine” but it may be a good idea.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Most Vulnerable Place on the Internet” (Wired, 8 minutes, November 2022). The subhead: “Underwater cables keep the internet online. When they congregate in one place, things get tricky.” We really don’t think about how the Internet works, and it’s kind of crazy to think that all this connectivity requires a bunch of really long cables stretching across the bottoms of oceans.

2) “Rogue Surgeon: The Tale of Eric the Red” (Texas Observer, 19 minutes, September 2022). This story isn’t for everyone, as the subhead should make clear: “A rogue surgeon’s long Texas career left behind damaged and dead people—and a cautionary tale of how far a wealthy physician can go before anyone stops him.” 

3) “A U.S. Track Star and the 30-Foot Long Jump That Didn’t Count” (Esquire, 16 minutes, November 2022). This is a story about Carl Lewis, one of my favorite athletes of all time. First, he was an American Olympic superstar while I was growing up, so I was already well-positioned to be a fan. Second, we share a last name (but no, we aren’t related). And third, the man could fly. This is a story about one of those flights.

Have a great weekend!