Paper Money

Paper money designers of 1896, 2011 share common goals

If G.F.C. Smillie had pulled a Rip Van Winkle in 1896 and awakened in the Bank of Canada’s head office in Ottawa on June 20, 2011, long of beard and blurry of eye, he would have found himself in territory both comfortably familiar and terrifyingly unfamiliar.

Both of our two Page One news articles this week coincidently focus on paper money: the Series 1896 silver certificate collection of the late Harry W. Bass and the June 20 unveiling of Canada’s first polymer notes. Bass’s remarkable collection is arriving at auction just weeks before Canada releases the polymer $100 denomination, with new designs and the latest in anti-counterfeiting devices. But despite the distance in time between the two series of notes, they are closely linked.

Fred Smillie was a master of the art of paper money engraving and, from 1894 until 1922, the chief engraver of the Bureau of Engraving in the United States, so the unveiling of a new series of paper money would have been a familiar experience. If Smillie were to awake today and find himself in the company of the men and women who designed the new Canadian notes, he would quickly recognize he was among kindred spirits, and they would recognize the Smillie name, still famous in the security engraving community.

While Smillie would not immediately comprehend many of the devices found on the new Canadian notes, he would understand the dangers of counterfeiting and he would have felt at home in Canada. He spent his entire adult life as a security engraver, entering the business before he even turned 18. For a year in the 1880s, he worked for the Canada Bank Note Co., a Montreal firm founded by one of his engraver uncles. In March 1894, he joined the BEP as chief engraver and soon began work on engravings for the $2 and $5 denominations represented in the Bass Collection of the Educational Series of 1896 silver certificates.

The Series 1896 notes are considered among the most beautiful notes ever issued by the United States, and yet they were replaced after just a year or so. Why? The BEP did not get the anti-counterfeiting technology right. The three notes bore no lathe work on their faces, a first for U.S. paper money. Fine lathe work was and is a powerful anti-counterfeiting device, and its absence on the 1896 notes made them potentially easy targets for counterfeiters before bank tellers could familiarize themselves with the new designs. The designs that replaced the 1896 notes featured engraved lathe work, as has every issue of U.S. paper money released since then, and as do the new 2011 Canadian notes.

The lessons learned from the wrong choices made in designing the 1896 notes remain valid today — you have to get the technology right before issuing the notes, not after. The BEP in 2011 has had to learn something similar to that lesson again. The new, Series 2009 $100 Federal Reserve note, originally scheduled for a February 2011 release, has been delayed indefinitely while BEP officials resolve a printing problem involving the newest weapon in the U.S. anti-counterfeiting arsenal — a high-tech security thread. One can imagine that the internal conversations of officials at the bureau today would be similar to the conversations their predecessors had in 1896 when discussing what to do with the new silver certificates.

Some of the technology used might differ, but the designers of the 1896 notes and the 2011 notes share a common purpose, for designers today fight the same foes Fred Smillie fought in 1896. ¦

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