KUNM

Where's George?: The Trail Of $1 Bills Across The U.S.

Mar 24, 2013
Originally published on March 24, 2013 6:08 pm

When you hear the words "social network" you probably think of Facebook or Twitter. But years before either of those websites — when most of us weren't using the Internet at all — a smaller, stranger community was emerging around something called WheresGeorge.com, a 15-year-old subculture that's dedicated to the $1 bill.

At Kabooz's Bar and Grill at New York's Penn Station, Jennifer Fishinger is covering her table in stacks of ones. There are 500 $1 bills laid out.

At the next table over, David Henry has his stacks of cash in plastic bags. They're paper-clipped $1 bills in groups of 10.

'A Quirky Idea'

For this group, it's all about the George Washingtons. Their dollars are stamped with messages like "currency tracking project" and "Track me at WheresGeorge.com." The website is the brainchild of Hank Eskin, a former tech consultant.

"I started the website in '98 as just a quirky idea. I didn't expect anything to happen," Eskin says. "I had no idea it would turn into a hobby or create this whole sensation."

It's called Georging. And typical Georgers log in religiously to enter their dollars' serial numbers and ZIP codes before they stamp and spend them. If one gets entered a second time, the Georger gets an email. That's called a "hit."

Robert Rothenberg was sitting at the table in Kabooz's when he got a hit in New Jersey. He gets a lot of hits, since he's entered nearly 100,000 bills into the website's database.

"I have a hit streak going since July of 2010, every day since then. I'm trying to get to 1,000 days, which will be the end of the month," Rothenberg says.

'Sexy' Statistics

Part of the attraction for a segment of users, Eskin says, is the math and data.

"Getting a lot of bills out there, getting them into different states and counties, seeing where they hit and analyzing all the statistics and the distance and time and the ZIP codes — real-like gearheads," he says.

But it's not just gearhead Georgers who love the statistics.

"As a data set, it is very sexy," says Dirk Brockmann, a theoretical physicist at Northwestern University. He was studying human mobility when a cabinetmaker in Vermont told him about the website.

"I was like, 'Oh wow, this is amazing because it's data that goes down to the ZIP code scale in the U.S.,'" Brockmann says.

By analyzing the Where's George? data, he's tested theories about networks, modeled infectious diseases and mapped the flow of currency in the U.S.

"It turns out that what started as a — in quotes — 'silly game' did some massive science, it was like the first measurement of human mobility on this scale," he says.

Traveling Dollar Bills

And human mobility interests the individual Georgers, too. The gathering at Kabooz's is to send off a group going on a cross-country train trip from New York City to Los Angeles. Howard Weissman isn't traveling on this journey, but he has envelopes full of stamped bills to trade with the Geogers who are.

"I don't travel much nowadays," Weissman says. "This is one way for me to get my bills across the country. The bills do a lot more traveling than I do."

This is the wistful side of Georging and maybe of capitalism, too — your money always travels a little bit farther than you do.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

When you hear the words social network, you probably think Facebook or Twitter. But years before either of those websites, a smaller, stranger community was emerging around something called wheresgeorge.com. Stan Alcorn reports from New York City on this 15-year-old subculture born from a website dedicated to the dollar bill.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: At Kabooz's Bar and Grill in Penn Station, Jennifer Fishinger is covering her table in stacks of ones. And how many bills do you have right here in front of you, do you think? How many dollars?

JENNIFER FISHINGER: Right here, I have about 500.

ALCORN: At the next table, David Henry has his stacks of cash in plastic bags.

DAVID HENRY: You know, they're all paper-clipped $10. And...

ALCORN: How many do you think are in there?

HENRY: This is going out public, right?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty-five.

HENRY: How'd you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, I don't know, like (unintelligible)

ALCORN: For this group, it's all about the George Washingtons. Their dollars are stamped with messages like currency tracking project and track me at wheresgeorge.com. The website is the brainchild of former tech consultant Hank Eskin.

HANK ESKIN: I started the website in '98 as just a quirky idea. Like, I didn't expect anything to happen. And I had no idea that it would turn into a hobby or, you know, create this whole sensation.

ALCORN: The sensation is called Georging. And a typical Georger logs in religiously to enter their dollar serial numbers and zip codes before they stamp and spend them. If one gets entered a second time, the Georger gets an email, and it's called a hit. Wait, did you just get a hit right now?

ROBERT ROTHENBERG: I just got a hit just now in West New York, New Jersey.

ALCORN: Robert Rothenberg gets a lot of hits because he's entered nearly 100,000 bills.

ROTHENBERG: I have a hit streak since July of 2010, every day since then. I'm trying to get to 1,000 days, which would be end of the month.

ESKIN: There's a sort of a segment of users which are purely into the statistics.

ALCORN: Wheresgeorge.com founder, Hank Eskin.

ESKIN: Getting a lot of bills out there, getting them into different states and counties, seeing where they're hit and analyzing all the statistics and the distance and the time and the zip codes like, real, you know, gearheads.

ALCORN: But it's not just gearhead Georgers who love the statistics.

DIRK BROCKMANN: As a data set, it is very sexy.

ALCORN: Dirk Brockmann is a theoretical physicist at Northwestern University. He was studying human mobility when a cabinet maker in Vermont told him about Where's George.

BROCKMANN: And then I was like, oh, wow, this is amazing because it's data that just goes down to the zip code scale.

ALCORN: By analyzing the Where's George data, he's tested theories about networks, modeled infectious diseases and mapped the flow of currency in the United States.

BROCKMANN: But it turns out that what started as a - in quotes, "silly game," did some massive science. It was like the first measurement of human mobility on this scale.

ALCORN: Mobility is what it's about for the individual Georgers too. The gathering at Kabooz's is to send off a group going on a cross-country train trip from New York City to Los Angeles. Howard Weissman isn't going on the trip himself, but he has envelopes full of stamped bills to trade with the Georgers who are.

HOWARD WEISSMAN: I don't travel much nowadays, so this is one way for me to get my bills across the country. The bills do a lot more traveling than I do.

ALCORN: This is the wistful side of Georging and maybe of capitalism, too, that your money always travels a little bit farther than you do. For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.