Paper Money

Library of Congress exhibit explores early American notes

An exhibit at the Library of Congress explores aspects of early American paper money, including the development of an anti-counterfeiting printing technique developed by Benjamin Franklin.

Original images courtesy of Library of Congress.

The National Numismatic Collection is not the only numismatic exhibit in the nation’s capital. Another is part of the Rare Book and Special Collections section of the Library of Congress. 

The Early American Paper Money Collection consists of approximately 210 items, and was the subject of a Nov. 21 guest post by the division’s librarian-in-residence, Anastasia Binkowski, who highlighted some of the pieces and focused on the long conventional wisdom about how a famous Colonial note was made.

Much of her discussion involved Benjamin Franklin, including his printing business and some of his efforts to avoid his output being counterfeited. The oldest note in the collection was printed by him for the colony of Delaware in 1746. The other notes attributed to him are also ascribed to his business partner David Hall, who continued printing money with William Sellers when Franklin went on his diplomatic mission to Europe. Franklin, Hall, and Sellers produced paper money for Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, and the Continental Congress. On many of the notes it states “Philadelphia: Printed by Hall and Sellers.” 

Counterfeiting of colonial currency was widespread. Binkowski noted that the most common actions were efforts to increase a denomination by adding a zero, or if the fraudster owned a printing press, simply copying a subject note and printing more on his own. As an impediment to the adders of zeroes, Franklin deliberately misspelled “Pennsylvania” in various ways on every high-denomination bill. To counteract imitators with their own presses, he used different fonts, symbols, and punctuation marks that only he had.

The collection’s Pennsylvania 40-shilling note of Dec. 8, 1775, is another example of Franklin’s many anti-counterfeiting efforts. Experienced paper money collectors are among the few who recognize that the leaf on many of his reverses is not just a design, but an anti-counterfeiting tactic, using elements of nature developed by Franklin. A forestry ecology student contributed a blog comment opining that the “leaf on the forty shilling note might be from an ironwood tree (Ostrya virginiana).”

Franklin was so secretive, Binkowski writes, that it was once believed that his notes were printed from hand-engraved plates. Eric Newman theorized that the process involved making an impression of a leaf in plaster with which a negative mold was cast that could then be used repeatedly to make metal printing blocks. But since Franklin kept his process secret and no blocks were known, no one knew for sure. 

James Green, in the 2013 Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia (pages 25–28), revealed that in 2012, the Delaware Country Institute of Science of Media, Pennsylvania, found in its collection one of the leaf blocks used to print currency, two metal ornament blocks and pieces of paper money. 

The Institute brought the blocks to the Library Company, where an examination including very high resolution digital photography, pointed to a new theory. 

Green writes, “It actually involved double-casting: creating a plaster mold of a leaf and pouring type metal into the impression. By casting first in plaster and then in metal, the resulting metal piece would have the same raised veins and texture of the original leaf and could be nailed to wood to make it the same height as the rest of Franklin’s type. The details of this image would be incredibly challenging to copy by hand-engraving and the block itself would be impossible to duplicate without the exact same leaf and the knowledge of how to create both strong enough plaster and the right metal alloy.”

Green described this as the only real invention in printing technology made by Benjamin Franklin.

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