Engraving, Inking, Trimming: The Production of Paper Currency in 1914

Previously we shared a blog post about counterfeiters and briefly mentioned how the artistic gifts of some were used to counterfeit money. This installment will discuss the creation of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and how currency was legitimately made in 1914.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Southeast corner of building. RG 56-AE-7.

In 1914, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s (BEP) operations moved to a new building, built in the neoclassical style, on 14th St. in Washington, DC. The Still Picture Branch of the National Archives preserves a set of hand-tinted lantern slides produced for either the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition or the Mississippi Centennial in 1917 to illustrate the activities of the bureau. The series contains approximately 145 lantern slides depicting the various activities of currency production. Scenes include interiors and exteriors of the then new Engraving and Printing building in Washington, DC, transportation of money, storage vaults, employee break areas, and other aspects of currency production.

On July 17, 1861, in an effort to fund the Union army in the Civil War, an act was authorized for the Secretary of the Treasury to print the first paper currency issued by the U.S. government. This currency became known as Demand Notes and was printed until 1862 when it was supplanted by United States Notes. While there is no organic act, the law of July 11, 1862 authorized notes to be engraved and printed at the Treasury and is considered to be the start of the bureau. However, it wasn’t until 1874 that congressional legislation officially recognized the BEP as a separate bureau under the Department of the Treasury.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Drawing preliminary design for U.S. Securities. RG 56-AE-14.

All currency is designed in-house by BEP banknote designers and begins with sketches and detailed drawings of the banknotes. Designers develop the  layout and details of the notes, but they must be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. Traditional tools of the trade include pencil, pen and ink, or paint brush. Once the design was approved, a steel engraving was executed and the printing plate was prepared. The engraving was done on a soft steel plate by hand and by lathe, depending on the design. The BEP employed two groups of hand engravers- those skilled in script and square lettering and those skilled in portraits and pictorial representations. The notes were not engraved in their entirety from one sheet of steel, but instead made up of several sheets. The steel sheets were hardened, combined, and then transferred to a final plate for printing.

To ensure good results from the intaglio engraved plates, the paper must have a uniform degree of moisture. The Wetting Division wet the paper twice, prior to the printing of the backs and once again after the sheets were examined. Dampened sheets were stored in humidors until they were prepped for the printing of the faces.

To make the printing ink, the base color was mixed with oil then the mixture was ground under heavy steel rollers. Inks underwent quality testing in the bureau’s laboratory.

The BEP utilized a variety of printing presses, including hand roller presses, power presses, and rotary presses. After printing, the sheets of currency were sized with a glue solution to better withstand dirt and wear. The sizing was done by a machine that applied the mixture and dried the sheet. The slideshow below includes images of the old and new methods for sizing operations in 1914. After sizing, the sheets underwent trimming, pressing, and numbering before a seal was affixed. The finished currency was packaged and delivered to the Treasury or Federal Reserve Vault.

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These images form part of 56-AE, Bureau of Engraving and Printing Facilities and Activities, and will soon be available to download from the catalog. Lantern slides are positive transparent images on glass. Oftentimes, as with these slides, black and white slides were hand-tinted with transparent dyes to give the impression of color photography. Additionally, lantern slides often had a piece of opaque paper on top that masked out unwanted parts of the image and simultaneously provided the appearance of a mounted photograph. The image is protected by a second piece of glass laid on top and secured around the edges with paper tape. Photographic lantern slides were created to be used with a lantern slide projector for educational presentations, entertainment, and travelogues.

Today, all paper currency is printed at two BEP locations – one in Washington, DC and the other in Fort Worth, TX. For information relating to the current printing procedures of the BEP, please visit their website.

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