Paper Money

Patriotic printers: Benjamin Franklin, genius, printed paper money

This the second in a series of articles from Gerald Tebben's Patritotic Printers, publihed in the November 2015 issue of Coin World Monthly:

Benjamin Franklin, 1706 to 1790 

Benjamin Franklin, signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is well known to paper currency collectors as the printer of an extensive series of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania notes from 1728 to 1746. 

Franklin entered the printing trade at 12 as an apprentice to his brother. At 18, he ran away and eventually started his own print shop in Philadelphia.

The words PRINTED BY B. FRANKLIN appear on the back of most of his bills, but likely not on his first paper money, the March 25, 1728, issue of New Jersey. While Franklin printed 50,000 of these 1728 New Jersey bills in nine denominations over the course of three months, none are known to survive. Eric P. Newman’s The Early Paper Money of America includes a drawing of the layout of a bill that was included with the authorizing legislation.

Franklin printed the New Jersey bills under contract to a fellow Philadelphia printer, the financially challenged Samuel Keimer, and discussed the operation in his autobiography. 

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“The New Jersey job was obtained,” he wrote. “I contrived a copperplate press for it, the first that had been seen in the country; I cut several ornaments and checks for the bills. We went together to Burlington [N.J.], where I executed the whole to satisfaction; and he [Keimer] received so large a sum for the work as to be enabled thereby to keep his head much longer above water.

“At Burlington I made an acquaintance with many principal people of the province. Several of them had been appointed by the Assembly a committee to attend the press and take care that no more bills were printed than the law directed. They were therefore, by turns, constantly with us, and generally he who attended brought with him a friend or two for company.”

In 1747, Franklin entered into a partnership with David Hall, his employee of four years, and retired from active management of the company. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote, Hall “took off my hands all care of the printing-office, paying me punctually my share of the profits. The partnership continued eighteen years, successfully for us both.”

The firm Franklin and Hall printed Delaware and Pennsylvania notes from 1749 to 1764 and signed their work PRINTED BY B. FRANKLIN AND D. HALL.

Bills printed with just Franklin’s name are scarce. Few survive and many are the worse for wear. None are priced in Newman’s book.

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin underscored the possible consequences of their actions after John Hancock commented that the signers must stay united and hang together. Franklin quipped, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” 

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