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Two Buck Luck

Claim:   $2 bills are considered unlucky.

TRUE

Origins:   Many commonplace objects are said to be inherently imbued with luck, good or ill, so it should not astonish us that one particular denomination of currency, the $2 bill, has attracted its own measure of superstition.

Clerks have been known to refuse them (and not because they thought the bills counterfeit, as in the famed Taco Bell story) — theirs was an aversion to handling something believed cursed with ill fortune. The taboo against the $2 bill runs throughout North America but is not spread evenly; in some communities its presence is quite
strong, in others almost non-existent. In the 1970s, for example, you'd have been hard pressed to find a Canadian $2 bill anywhere in the province of Alberta because one practically couldn't give them away there.

American $2 bills were first issued as legal tender notes in 1862. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the $2 bill has not been removed from circulation in the USA. According to the U.S. Treasury, as of 28 February 1999, $1,166,091,458 worth of U.S. $2 bills were in circulation worldwide. In Canada, the $2 bill was replaced with the "toonie," Canada's two-dollar coin (also known as "the Queen with the bear behind" because it bears an engraving of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and a bear on the other) in 1996.

Two-dollar bills have never been popular. In 1925 the U.S. government made an unsuccessful attempt to popularize them by inserting one in each pay envelope given to federal employees. Several newspapers offered to aid in the campaign by giving prizes for two-dollar bills containing certain serial numbers. The Post Office Department, however, pronounced this practice a lottery and therefore a violation of the postal laws.

Those who shy from the $2 bill give a variety of reasons for their antipathy:
  • At one time a session with a prostitute cost $2, thus possession of one of those bills proved its holder had been consorting with ladies of the evening. Under this line of thought, at the very least the bill at some point in its career had been through a joy house and was now forever tainted.

    The reasoning here is flawed: just because a thing costs two dollars does not mean exact change must be used to pay for it. Besides, a gent who'd just engaged the services of a hooker wouldn't be returning home with the telltale $2 bill in his wallet, because he would have just spent it. (And yes, in the 1930s two dollars would have bought you a five-minute interlude with the gal of your choice at a low-end brothel. Fellows generally left their shoes on during those quick encounters.)
  • In the days when election-rigging was the norm, campaign bosses would hire men to vote for their candidate. The ringers would be trucked in, given names from the voters' list to claim as their own, and the name of the man they were to vote for. Once they'd done the deed, they would each be rewarded with a $2 bill. The same fellows would be moved from polling place to polling place, each time to assume new names, vote for the same guy, and be paid again. Having $2 bills in your wallet was therefore proof you'd sold your vote.

    It would be naive to believe vote selling never went on, but that does not necessarily mean two dollars was the standard price for a vote or that, even if it were, the wage was paid with a $2 bill rather than two singles (or, much more likely, two silver dollars).
  • The standard bet in American horse racing was two dollars, and winners were paid with $2 bills. Ergo, possession of a sheaf of these notes was prima facie evidence that one had been betting on the hay burners. Given the prohibitions against gambling (in the not-so-distant past it was considered an activity thoroughly steeped in sin), no respectable person wanted to be associated with it, not even by happenstance.

    Although $2 was the most common amount to bet on the ponies, the parimutuel nature of racing's betting system meant that winners didn't receive exactly the amount they bet: a successful $2 bettor would be paid $4.30 or $8.40 or $10.70 or some other amount, depending upon the odds established for the various horses in the race at post time. That some bettors may have used $2 bill to place their bets doesn't mean everyone's winnings were paid in $2 bills.
Aside from ladies of the night, horse races, and bought votes, another reason given as the likely source of the $2 bill's perceived unsavory aspect stems from its most common name: "Deuce" is one of the many slang terms for the devil (as in, "The deuce you say!").

Whatever the cause, $2 bills are widely considered unlucky. For those troubled by this association, superstition offers a counter to two-dollar ill luck: tear a corner from the bill. Some who hold this view assert that one must discard the bill once all its corners are gone, but we don't hold such extreme views.

Barbara "two for the road" Mikkelson

Last updated:   16 May 2011

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Sources:

    De Lys, Claudia.   A Treasury of Superstitions.
    New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1957.

    Pickering, David.   Dictionary of Superstitions.
    London: Cassell, 1995.   ISBN 0-304-345350   (p. 266).

    Stimpson, George.   Nuggets of Knowledge.
    New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1934   (pp. 194-195).