The Security Features of American Paper Money

Money on a table

The Purpose of Security Features

It has taken thousands of years for money to come into existence in its current form. Throughout the evolution of paper money, it has become increasingly evident there is a need for mechanisms to be integrated into the process of money printing to prevent counterfeiting by a certain faction of the public – who might prefer to create phony money instead of earning it! As technology has continued to advance, so has the human resolve to forge imitation bills that can be passed off as authentic. The race has been on for decades to see who would win out – the Bureau of Engraving and Printing where paper money is designed and produced – or the counterfeiter who loves a challenge!  This article will focus on the many security features that are now a regular part of the money printing process. 

‘Paper’ Used for American Bills

People automatically believe that money is made from paper because we refer to it as such most of the time. However, American bills are really a blend of cotton and linen - the very same materials used to manufacture clothing! Specifically, paper money is 25% linen and 75% cotton. One reason for the use of fibers in the development of money is that paper itself does not hold up well. An American bill has a lifespan of anywhere from five to fifteen years depending on such things as the denomination and other factors. For example, the ‘100-dollar bill’ is not commonly found in many wallets to the same extent as a $5, $10, or $20. Therefore, the hundred-dollar bill has the longest average life span and could be in circulation for over seven years, while the dollar bill may not make it two years in circulation.   Smaller bills are more easily exchanged for goods and services and so have become the ‘workhorse’ of the American economy. Ultimately, fiber-based money is simply better able to withstand the wear and tear of constant use. 

The single supplier of paper to the Treasury Department for the printing of money is Crane & Company located in Dalton, Massachusetts. They have provided the United States with their ‘special product’ for well over a century. They test their paper regularly—claiming that money must be able to withstand no less than 4000 double folds without completely disintegrating. 

As would be suspected in the process of printing American bills, each component is carefully (fastidiously) tracked and accounted for – beginning with the sheets of fiber-based paper that are received by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. When the paper arrives, it is wrapped in plain brown paper and bundled in packs of 20,000 sheets each. The exception to this is the paper for the $100-dollar bill. In this case, there are only 16,000 sheets per parcel. Indeed, the U.S. government puts equal parts security and advanced technology to work in order to ensure the validity of our currency.

‘Ink’ Used for American Bills

A second security measure employed by the government in the creation of American ‘paper’ money is a special form of ink that is unlike what is found in markers and pens. It is labeled as an ‘optically variable’ or ‘metallic color shifting’ ink. It gives the bills the unique and subtle ability to change shades depending upon the angle in which the bill is reflecting light. This is easily noticeable if you simply hold the bill and rotate it in the light. You will see changing colors and even some glimmering! The Bureau of Engraving and Printing creates the formulas and blends of ink that are used in the printing process. 

The application of the ink fluctuates as well. For instance, on the backs of all American paper money, green ink is used. This led to the use of the slang term ‘greenback’ as a substitute for the word money. However, the fronts of denominations have deviations. The faces associated with each bill are created with different applications of the metallic color shifting ink. On the ten-dollar bill the black ink can be found in the lower right-hand corner but appears elsewhere on the twenty, fifty and hundred-dollar bills. 

‘Security Thread’ Used in American Bills

It should come as no surprise that the United States Treasury Department is constantly updating their ‘money-making’ procedures to make the American bill more secure and more difficult to counterfeit. The addition of the ‘security thread’ on the hundred-dollar bill, and later all denominations of bills $5 and up, first began in 1990. The security thread is a thin ribbon that is sewn directly into the bill and usually appears in a vertical direction. It is visible in different parts of various currencies on either the front or back of the bill. 

The security thread has the added feature of glowing when placed underneath ultraviolet light. Different denominations will present as various colors. For example, the ribbon in the twenty-dollar bill will glow ‘green’ and the thread in the fifty-dollar bill is yellow. While the Bureau of Engraving and Printing does not hesitate to share this information, what you will not be able to discover is how these threads are sewn into each bill. The Bureau considers this to be one of its ‘trade secrets’!

‘Color’ used in American Bills

When money first began to be printed by the government around the time of the American Civil War, green was the only color that was used. No matter the denomination, all paper bills were the same. However, today’s money has a much more artistic look. Bills may now be made with up to four different colors of ink that are added one-at-a-time during the printing thereby giving off a ‘layered’ effect that is difficult to copy.

You can notice some surprising shades on modern currency orange, yellow, and even some bluish hues on $100 bills.

‘Watermark’ Used in American Bills

For the last quarter century all denominations of American paper money also come with a watermark. This is a design that is nearly invisible to the naked eye but can be easily seen when the paper is held up to light. Modern higher currency bills have a watermark to the side of the bill. Watermarks on American money are simply a smaller portrait of the president that appears on the bill. President George Washington appears on the one-dollar-bill, President Thomas Jefferson on the two, President Abraham Lincoln on the five, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on the ten, President Andrew Jackson on the twenty, President Ulysses Grant on the fifty, and statesman Benjamin Franklin on the hundred. These watermarks are an excellent added safety measure to guard against counterfeiting. 

‘Microprinting’ Used in American Bills

One final security measure used in the process of creating American paper money is called ‘microprinting’. This is the act of producing characters or patterns that are easily recognized onto a paper medium which, in this case, is the paper bills that drive the American economy. The microprinting presents as a single solid line but when it is examined with a magnifying glass, words appear. These microprinted features are located at different parts of all bills except the single dollar bill. The microprints contain words such as ‘The United States of America’ (in all capital letters) or E Pluribus Unum (the motto of the USA). 

Some Final Interesting Facts about Money 

Despite the ubiquitous nature of money in all aspects of our lives – from entertainment to day-to-day needs – most people do not concern themselves with how money is constructed or produced. Too, money has not always been a form of currency to be exchanged for goods and services. Anthropologists have discovered evidence that during the dawn of mankind’s existence people would barter, or trade, items. Eventually, humans began to trade livestock and food. Coins finally appeared on the human timeline around 1000 A.D. and by the Depression of the 1930s gold had become the standard. Unfortunately, the latter was found to be a faulty option and drove the world economy further into economic ruin. 

Interestingly, across the world today, money is quickly being replaced by a growing number of technology options. People commonly make purchases using credit and debit cards that may represent paper money but for which the exchange is conducted electronically. It is possible that at some point in the future the need for tangible money may cease to exist! However, that is not expected to happen anytime soon. Currently, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces an average of 37 million currency notes each and every day for an average of nearly $700 million dollars! 

If you are interested in learning more about how money is made, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing offers free forty-minute tours Monday through Friday. You may never have another chance to see millions of dollars being printed right before your very eyes! Next time you are in Washington, D.C., add this to your to-do list.

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