Today, we all know the U.S. dollar as an iconic currency that is recognizable to people around the world.
How and why was it conceived, and why do we call it a “dollar” or a “buck”? How did the dollar’s early history help to shape today’s world?
Before the Dollar
For the early colonists, currency was a bit of a free-for-all.
Officially, cash was denominated in pounds, shillings, and pence, but in reality things were a different story. Cash was often scarce, and colonists needed to be innovative to fulfill transactions. At various points in time, they used tobacco, beaver skins, and wampum in the place of money. Some colonies even tried to issue their own fiat currencies – many of which went bust.
As it turned out, the Spanish dollar was often the most abundant form of cash – and this is what led to U.S. currency eventually being denominated in dollars.
During the American Revolution in 1775, the Continental Congress issued a money known as the Continental Currency to try and fund the war. The government printed too many, and the value of a Continental diminished rapidly.
Just five years later, after runaway inflation, the Continental was worth 2.5% of its face value. Benjamin Franklin rightly noted that the depreciation of the Continental had, in fact, acted as a tax to pay for the war. Holders of the currency – everyday people – were punished by losing massive amounts of buying power. Interestingly, this is where we get the phrase “Not worth a Continental”.
Birth of the Dollar
The failure of the Continental Currency must have been top of mind during the writing of the Constitution. A clause was even added, under Article 1, Section 10, to make sure such a failure would never happen again. It was written that states were not permitted to “coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; [or] make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.”
And so, the Coinage Act of 1792 created the U.S. dollar as a standard unit of currency. The U.S. Mint was authorized to oversee coinage, and the Act also established a penalty of death for debasing coinage issued by the Mint.
The Almighty Buck
In the 19th Century, a new slang term emerged for the dollar.
Especially in the Great Lakes area, different amounts of money were equated with animal skins. One particular reference showed that in Ohio in 1851, the skin of a muskrat was worth $0.25, and that of a doe was worth $0.50. Meanwhile, the skin of a buck was equal to the “almighty dollar” – and hence, the word “buck” became synonymous with the U.S. dollar.
The Civil War
Leading up to the Civil War, private banks around the country issued their own paper currencies.
With 10,000 or so of these currencies in circulation as the war broke out, governments soon found it very cumbersome to try and pay debts with many different types of notes. As a result, the $10 Demand Note was the first official paper currency issued in 1861 by the government to help finance the war.
The North began paying debts with a fiat currency called the “greenback”, while Confederate states issued their own paper currency as well. The latter was worthless by the time the Confederacy lost the war.
The Counterfeiting Problem
Around this time, counterfeiting was a widespread problem with greenbacks and all the private notes that were circulating. More than 1/3 of bills were fake at this time.
Sophisticated counterfeit operations were happening in British Canada, and some bank engravers would even moonlight as counterfeiters, using the same plates and dyes they had from their day job.
To deal with the problem, the Secret Service was formed in 1865.
The Modern Dollar
Counterfeiting measures have come a long way since the late 19th century. Today, it’s estimated that less than 0.01% of notes are fake.
Learn more about the modern U.S. dollar in the next part of this series.
Mapped: The Top 10 Billionaire Cities
Where do the most billionaires live? For years, NYC has topped the list of billionaire cities, but 2020 marked a monumental shift.
Mapped: The Top 10 Billionaire Cities in 2020
In 2020, the world gained 493 new billionaires—that’s one every 17 hours.
For the last seven years, New York City has been home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. However, last year marked a monumental shift in the status quo.
Beijing has unseated the Big Apple, and is now home to 100 billionaires. That’s one more billionaire than the 99 living in New York City.
Today’s map uses data from Forbes to display the top 10 cities that house the most billionaires.
Where do the Most Billionaires Live?
The richest of the rich are quite concentrated in cities, but some cities seem to best suit the billionaire lifestyle. Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 billionaire capitals and the collective net worth of all the ultra wealthy that live there.
|Rank||City||Region||Number of Billionaires||Net Worth of the City's Billionaires|
|#2||New York City||🇺🇸 North America||99||$560.5B|
|#3||Hong Kong||🇨🇳 Asia||80||$448.4B|
|#9||San Fransisco||🇺🇸 North America||48||$190.0B|
Some cities have some obvious billionaires that come to mind. New York’s richest person and former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is worth $59 billion. Beijing’s richest billionaire is the founder of TikTok (among other things), Zhang Yiming with a net worth of $35.6 billion.
In terms of the locations themselves, London, New York, and San Francisco are the only Western cities to make the list. Though New York was ousted from the top position last year, altogether the city’s billionaires are still worth more than Beijing’s.
One new city to make the top 10 list of billionaire cities was Hangzhou, the home of Jack Ma. It booted out Singapore from the 10th spot.
East Meets West
More than half of the top 10 cities are located in Asia, providing evidence of the shift eastwards when it comes to seats of wealth. Five of the six Asian cities listed are all in China.
What’s helped lead to this?
The country has seen an e-commerce boom, not in the least thanks to the pandemic. Additionally, the efficient handling of COVID-19 has allowed the economy to get back on track much more quickly than other countries. According to the BBC, 50% of China’s new billionaires have made their wealth either through tech or manufacturing.
Four of the Chinese cities on the list also had the biggest billionaire growth in 2020. Each of them gained more than 10 net new billionaires:
- 🇨🇳 Hangzhou: 21
- 🇨🇳 Shanghai: 18
- 🇨🇳 Shenzhen: 24
- 🇨🇳 Beijing: 33
The only other city to gain more than 10 new billionaires in 2020 was San Francisco with 11.
Now sitting at 698 billionaires, China is coming up on the 724 held by the United States. Beijing overtaking NYC could be the beginning of a larger tipping point.
Asia-Pacific’s collective 1,149 billionaires are worth $4.7 trillion, while U.S. billionaires are worth $4.4 trillion in total wealth.
Overall, it looks like the wealth tides may be turning as China continues to progress economically and more billionaires become based in the East over the West.
Visualized: The Richest Families in America
The net worth of the 50 richest families in America combines for $1.2 trillion. Here’s how multi-generational family wealth stacks up in the country.
Visualizing the Richest Families in America
When we think about the richest people in America, individual names often come to mind like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates. But often, it’s the richest families in America that hold a deeper legacy, and sometimes, even deeper pockets.
The country’s 50 richest families hold a collective wealth of $1.2 trillion. This ranking goes beyond nuclear family units and self-made fortunes, and it instead measures the wealth of multi-generational or extended families.
Our visualization, which leverages the latest data from Forbes, reveals the wealthiest families in America and the enterprises that helped them earn their billions.
Editor’s note on methodology: in this ranking, Forbes leaves out self-made entrepreneurs that appear with their nuclear families on the billionaires list. For example, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon and Rupert Murdoch founded News Corp, but these successes did not come from family wealth that was passed down to them.
Say the name Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, and everyone knows who you’re talking about—but how do these household names hold up in the modern rankings?
Below are the 50 richest families in America, based on net worth:
|Rank||Family||Net Worth||Origin of Wealth|
|#2||Koch Family||$100.0B||Koch Industries|
|#3||Mars Family||$94.0B||Mars Inc.|
|#4||Cargill-MacMillan Family||$47.0B||Cargill Inc.|
|#5||Lauder Family||$40.0B||Estee Lauder|
|#6||S.C. Johnson Family||$37.0B||SC Johnson|
|#7||Edward Johnson Family||$36.0B||Fidelity|
|#8||Cox Family||$34.5B||Cox Enterprises|
|#9||Pritzker Family||$32.5B||Hyatt Hotels|
|#10||Newhouse Family||$30.0B||Condé Nast|
|#11||Duncan Family||$22.0B||Enterprise Products Partners L.P.|
|#12||Hearst Family||$21.0B||Hearst Corporation|
|#14||Marshall Family||$18.5B||Koch Industries (6% stake)|
|#17||Du Pont Family||$16.0B||DuPont|
|#18||Hunt Family||$15.5B||Hunt Oil and Petro-Hunt|
|#19||Dorrance Family||$15.0B||Campbell Soup Co.|
|#23||Goldman Family||$13.2B||Real Estate|
|#24||Rollins Family||$13.1B||Orkin Pest control|
|#25||Gallo Family||$12.4B||E&J Gallo Winery|
|#26||Reyes Family||$12.0B||Reyes Holdings|
|#27||Kohler Family||$11.7B||Kohler Co.|
|#29||Smith Family||$11.3B||Illinois Tool Works, Northern Trust|
|#31||Sackler Family||$10.8B||Purdue Pharma|
|#32||Johnson Family||$10.7B||Johnson & Johnson|
|#33||Marriott Family||$10.4B||Marriott International|
|#35||Hughes Family||$10.2B||Public Storage Inc.|
|#38||Fisher Family||$8.9B||Gap Inc.|
|#39||Jenkins Family||$8.8B||Publix Super Markets|
|#40||Chao Family||$8.6B||Westlake Chemical Corp.|
|#41||(Charles & Rupert) Johnson Family||$8.6B||Franklin Resources Inc.|
|#42||Phipps Family||$8.6B||Carnegie Steel, Bessemer Trust|
|#43||Rockefeller Family||$8.4B||Standard Oil|
|#44||E.W. Scripps Family||$8.4B||Scripps Network Interactive|
|#47||Durst Family||$8.1B||Real Estate|
|#48||Taylor Family||$7.8B||Enterprise Rent-A-Car|
|#50||Barbey Family||$7.3B||VF Corp|
The richest family in the U.S. is the Waltons, founders of Walmart. Their net worth adds to an approximate $247 billion, making them also the richest family in the world. Over the last year, they’ve grown their family fortune by $25 billion, equal to nearly $3 million per hour.
Interestingly, the Vanderbilts—the railroad tycoons that were once the richest family in the country in the late 19th century—have been ousted from the rankings entirely. Other notable American families, like Ford and Astor, have lost their place on the list as well.
On the other hand, the Rockefellers still hold their status today, ranked at number 43 with a net worth of $8.4 billion. John D. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire back in 1916, despite the breaking up of Standard Oil for antitrust reasons.
Over the last five years, nearly every family on this list has seen wealth increase. Many of the behemoth companies on which these families built their fortunes are staples in America, like Campbell’s Soup, Cargill, Dixie Cups, Estee Lauder, and M&Ms and Snickers.
For example, the South’s beloved fast food chain, Chick-fil-A, was founded by the Cathy family and generated $12.67 billion in sales as of the latest annual data, making it the third most popular chain restaurant in the country.
Some of the newer families to make the list also owe it to the success of their enterprises:
- The Kohler family: Kohler Co. (manufacturers of kitchenware, plumbing products, furniture, etc.)
- The Taylor family: Enterprise Rent-A-Car (car rental services)
However, a few families have experienced significant losses since the last Forbes ranking. Here’s a look at some notable net worth decreases:
|Family||Company||Change in Net Worth from 2015-2020|
|Fisher||Gap Inc.||Negative growth (exact $ amount unknown)|
|Johnson (Charles and Rupert)||Mutual Funds||Negative growth (exact $ amount unknown)|
Purdue Pharma recently filed for bankruptcy. The Sackler family’s plan is to reformulate the company into a new venture whose profits would go towards the opioid crisis, for which they are largely blamed. It would also cost the family around $4.3 billion directly.
Keeping it in the Family
While some families may have experienced decreases in their wealth, for many this is just a small bump in the road.
Overall, the richest families in America are the keepers of immense wealth that has accumulated over generations. For some, their names are now cultural landmarks across the U.S. and their brands have become synonymous with life in America.
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