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An Autobiography: Chapter 26, Personality Dollar Bills

It was in 1967 that I developed the idea for a currency product that would continue selling to this day: Personality® Dollar Bills. More than 1.5 million have been sold to date, the No. 1 seller being the “Santa Claus Dollar Bill,” followed by the “Elvis Presley Dollar Bills.”

Santa Claus Dollar Bill 

That year we were living in Denver, and my mail order business, specializing in country music products, was operated under Heather Enterprises. The catalog that year, with Heather’s photo on the cover, read: “Heather brings you over 200 fascinating products you can buy right in your own home.” On the first page was a small photo of me: “Howdy! Well, here we are with a brand new catalog … everything from Heather is fully guaranteed … she still says Minnie Pearl is her favorite. She likes Buck Owens and Eddy Arnold, too.”

On an inside page is a photo of Georgianna standing in front of a large poster of herself, advertising “BLOW YOURSELF OR YOUR FAVORITE STAR UP TO POSTER SIZE.” In that catalog there were 27 Personality® Dollar Bills featured at $2 each. Ten years later, the catalog offered more than 150, all country western stars, advertised at $2.95. When the product expanded to include world-wide personalities in all genres (more than 1,500), they were selling in major catalogs and retail shops for as much as $5.95 each!

Georgianna Ad Poster 

When I first got the idea to affix photos of personalities over George Washington on mint, uncirculated dollar bills, the question was if it was legal.

I went to Washington, D.C., and had a meeting with an agent at the Treasury Department. I put my best foot forward as I sat across the desk, and the agent put me at ease, saying, “Mr. Moore, I understand you have an idea for a novelty product using U.S. currency and what you can do legally.”

I handed him a few Personality® Dollar Bills, one with the current president, Lyndon B. Johnson. When he saw it, he smiled, held it up, turned it over, felt it, and then started peeling off the photo I had applied to the bill. He then said, “Mr. Moore, as long as the photo can be removed, what you are doing is legal. But I must warn you there are strict laws about copying and counterfeiting. In your advertising to illustrate your bills, any reproduction must be enlarged at least 150% or reduced 75%.We’ll send you a letter.”

I received a letter from Thomas J. Kelley, Assistant Director, Treasury Department, dated July 19, 1967. In the letter it stated, “Based on our investigation of the matter, it is the opinion of this office, in which the Office of the General Counsel concurs, that such action is not prohibited by any existing Federal statute … the practice of superimposing pictures of famous persons on $1 Silver Certificates or $1 bills is not considered an advertisement or notice within the meaning of section 475, due to the fact that they are manufactured as, and intended to be, novelties.”

Even with that letter from the Treasury Department, it was difficult to convince some people that what I was doing was legal. The money was still legal tender; all you had to do was peel off the photo off to reveal a brand new dollar bill that any bank would accept. I had a very unusual product!

I didn’t have any thoughts about problems with the Treasury Department or the Secret Service, but as my product started selling in large numbers and received press in major publications, problems began. Dealers were contacting me, telling me that Secret Service agents confiscated their bills and threatened them with arrest. In each case, I contacted the local office of that Secret Service and sent them the Treasury letter. They returned the bills and apologized. This happened several times just because the local agents didn’t do their homework; the only thing on their mind was counterfeiting.

On several occasions, agents came to my office in Denver, and when they came in I just smiled and gave them a lesson in what was legal and what was not. What a product! When I produced currency for Tennessee Homecoming ’86 with photos of Governor Lamar Alexander and the Homecoming logo, I got a call from the head of the Nashville Secret Service. The governor autographed many bills. He later said, “Wherever I went across the state, someone had a dollar bill with my photo!” Melinda W. Fields, Department of Commerce and Insurance, Nashville, sent a letter to the Tennessee Homecoming ’86 Coordinator, advising them that the bills did not violate any federal laws.

I knew my product was accepted by the right people when we received an order for 900 Ronald Reagan Dollar Bills for his presidential campaign! The acetate covers for the bills had to be gold stamped, which was done by a printer in Denver. They shipped them to Montrose by bus, but going over the 14,000-foot Monarch Pass, the luggage door came open and our 900 acetate covers flew down the mountain side! The covers had to be redone, and the only reason the order got filled in time was because Tracy and one of her helpers worked all night.

Ronald Reagan Dollar Bill 

In 1974, with the help of my good friend in Denver, Ray Rowland, we developed the process whereas we could take a photo or a snapshot of a person, reproduce it and apply it to the dollar bill. That, too, became very successful, and we not only processed photos of people – children, wedding couples, historic photos – but we also had orders for pets of all kinds! You name it, I think we did it.

Through the years, my Personality® Dollar Bills received much press in newspapers throughout the country, as well as in major publications such as Reader’s Digest, Newsweek, and many trade publications covering fields of marketing, premiums, ad specialties, coins and numismatic, etc. The New York Times, January 11, 1978, issue had a photo of the Mayor Koch Dollar Bill. The article read:

Tired of George?
No, the new Mayor isn’t printing his own money – although with city finances the way they are, he might like to. There’s a place called Treasure Mart that doesn’t print money (that’s still a Federal monopoly) but does substitute celebrity pictures for that of George Washington on the $1 bill. Celebrities (Peter Falk, Mick Jagger, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jimmy Carter and hundreds of others) can be had for $3.95. If you think you’re also a celebrity worthy of being immortalized, it will cost you a small photograph and $8.95. (Treasure Mart was our dealer in New York City.)

Manchete, a magazine in Rio de Janeiro (similar to our Life), ran an article in 1975 and featured photos of four Personality® Dollar Bills: Pele (one of the all-time great football stars); President Nixon; Winston Churchill; and Charlie Chaplin. The press had fun coming up with clever headings for their articles on the currency.

Some examples:
‘Funny Money’ Expert Changes Dollars to Dough
For a Few Dollars More…
Where’s George?
It’s Funny Money But It’s Legal

GRIT, America’s Greatest Family Newspaper, ran a major feature story on me and the Elvis Dollars in their March 12, 1978, edition. On the cover, at the top, was a photo of Elvis with the banner: Promoter Puts Elvis on Dollar Bill – Page 29. They devoted nearly a full page to the story, with a large photo of me at my desk in Montrose, Colorado.

The heading was: New Faces on the Dollar

The subhead was: Promoter Trades on Novel Ideas

Thurston in Grit 

Thurston Moore appears in the March 12, 1978, issue of GRIT. 

Adventures in Cassetts, a major catalog house years ago, used our Jack Benny Dollar Bill prominently on the cover of a catalog promoting “old-time radio shows.” Personality® Dollar Bills are certainly an attention-getter!

I have always had great admiration for Charlie Chaplin. He was knighted in 1975, and I had a beautiful lucite paper weight made and engraved with the words: Sir Charles Chaplin. I sent this, along with a Chaplin Personality® Dollar Bill in an acetate currency holder (all Personality® Dollar Bills were encased in these for lasting protection), to Mr. Chaplin at his home in Switzerland. I asked if he would be so kind to sign the bill and return it to me, and accept the paper weight as my gift, thanking him for the immense joy he has given the world. He signed the bill and returned it to me.

I never made a serious effort at collecting autographs on the bills, but through the years I did get a few. I’ll never forget when I first met Dolly Parton. I gave her a $2 bill and asked her to autograph mine; she did and then gave me a big kiss!

Dolly Parton Dollar Bill 

Other autographed bills include Johnny Bond, who wrote, “Financially Yours ”; D.C. Fontana, writer on Star Trek, who signed a Spock Dollar Bill; Randolph Scott; President Harry Truman; Ruby Keeler; Buster Crabbe; Debbie Reynolds; Loretta Lynn; and Clayton Moore (the actor who played the Lone Ranger).

Liberace signed a $2 bill: “I love the new money.” He bought large quantities of his bill and gave them out at Christmastime. Liberace’s manager showed the bills to Henri Lewin, president of the Las Vegas Hilton, and Mr. Lewin ordered a quantity of bills with his picture on it.

Don’t Miss Next Chapter: Santa Claus