Why is there a star on my dollar bill? The single five-pointed star on the front of the US one-dollar bill is a design feature that many people notice but few understand. If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: the star represents the states of the Union coming together to create one unified country.
In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the full origin story behind the star on the dollar bill. We’ll look at early American currency, the meaning of The Great Seal of the United States, and the symbolism behind the seal’s key design elements including the star.
Early American Paper Money Did Not Have a Star
The first paper money issued in what would become the United States was called Continental currency. It was printed to help fund the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain starting in 1775. This early paper currency did not feature any stars or other symbolic images.
It mainly included text and simple decorative borders.
The Continental Congress authorized the issuance of Continentals to pay colonial soldiers and purchase supplies. However, the currency was not backed by gold or silver and quickly became worthless due to massive inflation.
By 1780, the phrase “not worth a Continental” had entered American vocabulary as a synonym for something utterly valueless.
The First Nationally Issued Dollar Bills
It was not until the 1860s that the first nationally circulated dollar bills were produced by the United States federal government. These early dollar bills were created by the National Currency Bureau, later known as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP).
The first dollar bills were quite plain in design compared to modern currency. They did not yet feature the familiar Great Seal of the United States with the bald eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch.
So naturally, no stars appeared on these early dollar bills originating from the National Currency Bureau.
It was not until 1929 that the Great Seal first appeared on the reverse side of one-dollar silver certificates. This was when stars were finally incorporated into standard American paper currency produced by the federal government.
The Great Seal of the United States Introduced the Star
The 1782 Congressional Committee
In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee made up of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design the Great Seal of the United States. After some early proposals involving biblical scenes and national motifs like the rose, an eagle, and a shield, the final design was adopted 6 years later in 1782.
The early committee came up with some interesting ideas but weren’t able to agree on a final design. As Franklin quipped, it was hard to “make a painting by committee!” After their initial attempts failed, the responsibility shifted to Congress and Secretary of State Charles Thomson.
Symbolism of The Final Great Seal Design
The final design for the Great Seal is filled with symbolic imagery about American independence and values. The dominant elements are the bald eagle with a shield, clutching 13 arrows, and an olive branch in its talons.
Above the eagle is a radiant constellation of 13 stars surrounded by bright glory and clouds.
According to Thomson, this star formation represents “a new constellation rising in the western horizon.” As the nation was new and rising, so too was this cluster of 13 stars denoting the original United Colonies.
In total, Thomson said the Great Seal aims to “mark that the United States of America is a new constellation, rising in the west, or setting amidst the signs of heaven.” The glowing cosmic ascension resembles divinely inspired American principles dawning on civilization.
How the Great Seal Made It onto Currency
For around 100 years after its 1782 adoption, the Great Seal was used mainly on treaties and certificates rather than currency. Its first major public debut came via the back of the $1 Silver Certificate in 1935, which coincided with the Great Depression era reforms moving away from the gold standard.
With economic calamity fresh on people’s minds, the powerful iconography of the seal aimed to inspire trust, stability, and national pride. As such, it was retained on the back of 1957’s $1 Silver Certificates and brought over to 1963’s Federal Reserve Notes that we still use today.
So while Franklin’s committee didn’t have the easiest time designing the Seal in that first crack, their vision successfully passed the test of time to modern wallets. The eye-catching reverse of the $1 bill serves as a daily reminder of America’s core principles, independence, and potential.
The Star Represents Unity Among the States
E pluribus unum meaning
The phrase “E pluribus unum” which appears on the banner held in the eagle’s beak translates to “Out of many, one”. This references how the 13 original states came together to form one unified nation. The phrase signifies the union of the states and symbolizes the federal nature of the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s website, it reflects the belief that “out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation.”
13 stars representing 13 original colonies
There are 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle above the eagle on the back of the dollar bill. This configuration represents the original 13 colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and formed the United States of America. The colonies were:
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- New York
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
The star configuration has changed over time
While there have always been 13 stars on the Great Seal since its inception, the arrangement has changed a few times:
|1782 (original design)
|1–4–3–4–1 pattern with 5-pointed stars
|1–4–3–4–1 pattern with 6-pointed stars
|e of 13 5-pointed stars
So while the meaning behind the 13 stars has stayed consistent, the precise arrangement has evolved over the last 200+ years the Great Seal has been used on the back of the $1 bill.
Other Symbolic Elements of the Dollar Bill
The unfinished pyramid
The unfinished pyramid on the back of the dollar bill consists of 13 steps, representing the 13 original states. At the top is the Eye of Providence in a triangle. The unfinished nature is said to symbolize the unfinished work of the United States in becoming a nation.
Some historians also believe it represents the idea that the country is still a work in progress, always striving for that “more perfect Union” mentioned in the Constitution.
The eye of providence
The eye embedded in the triangle at the top of the pyramid is known as the Eye of Providence. It symbolizes the divine assistance and blessing for the new nation. The concept traces back to ancient Egypt and the Eye of Horus.
|Use of Eye of Providence
|Dollar bills, other national symbols
|National coat of arms
As per a 2022 survey, the Eye of Providence is globally one of the most recognized national symbols, seen as representing ideals like providence and destiny.
The bald eagle
The bald eagle on the front of the dollar bill is the national bird and symbol of the United States. The choice traces back to the founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin who admired the eagle’s majestic beauty and strength.
The arrows clutched in the eagle’s left talon symbolize war. Meanwhile, the olive branch in the right talon represents peace. Together, they represent the power of peace and war.
The Latin phrases
There are two Latin phrases on the dollar bill:
- Annuit cœptis above the pyramid – Translated as “He favors our undertakings”, expressing hope that God favors the American cause
- Novus ordo seclorum below the pyramid – Translated as “New order of the ages”, meaning the beginning of a new American era
These meaningful Latin phrases reinforce the new nation’s determined, auspicious beginnings and future vision.
Why Is There A Star On My Dollar Bill – Conclusion
The star on the modern US dollar bill has been present since 1935 when the design was standardized. It emerged from the creation of the Great Seal of the United States long before. The star symbolizes national unity among the 13 original states of America coming together to form one country.
Understanding the intentional symbolism behind elements of the dollar bill design gives new insight into American history. The next time you handle a $1 bill you can appreciate the complex origins of not only the star, but all the meaningful imagery representing the formation of the nation.