By Stephen Kaufman
As the world’s most actively traded and principal reserve currency, the U.S. dollar is probably the most instantly recognized form of money on the planet. Its wide use also makes it a prime target for counterfeiters, so the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) has been updating cash notes to better keep up with increasingly sophisticated and publicly available printing technologies.
It is becoming rarer to find $5, $10, $20 and $100 notes that were printed before the BEP began its redesign efforts in 1996. The most notable difference in the new bills is the off-center and enhanced portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin, respectively. But look more closely at your U.S. notes and you will find features designed to frustrate forgers and guarantee they are genuine.
When the bill is held up to a light, there are numeric watermarks on the $5 bill, and portrait watermarks on one side of the higher denominations. There are also security threads placed in different spots, depending on the bill, which will glow under an ultraviolet light. The $10, $20 and $100 bills also have small graphics and numerals that will change color as the note is tilted. The newest notes even have a touch test. Scrape a fingernail across the portrait’s vest and you may notice that it has ridges.
If you happen to see a note larger than $100 in circulation, it is almost certainly a fake. The last $500–$1000 bills were printed in 1945, and President Richard Nixon ordered them removed from circulation in 1969 in an effort to fight organized crime.
Along with deterring counterfeiters, redesigned notes will also be more useful to the visually impaired, who long have coped with the difficulty that all U.S. notes are the same size and texture. Many have tried to overcome this with specially designed electronic readers or even by simply folding different denominations in unique ways. In May 2011, former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced that, along with an improved distribution of currency readers, the BEP will begin printing notes with higher contrast colors and raised tactile features that will allow a note’s value to be determined by touch.
Older notes remain valid, but they will continue to disappear as worn and damaged currency is exchanged. At the same time, U.S. currency is designed to withstand a certain amount of wear and tear, including being folded 8,000 times. The paper is actually more of a fabric, made up of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, with reinforcing silk threads. That design has helped anyone who has made the mistake of leaving cash in pockets that have gone through a laundry cycle.
According to the BEP, the lifespan of a typical $5 bill is 16 months. It is 18 months for $10; 24 for $20; and 89 months for $100. The $1 bill, which accounts for nearly half of U.S. notes in circulation, lasts an average of 22 months.
All U.S. currency paper is specifically made for the BEP by the Crane Paper Company, which creates the security threads and watermarks for notes $5 and above before sending the sheets of paper to the BEP’s printing facilities in Washington and Fort Worth, Texas. Both the paper’s precise recipe, as well as what makes up the BEP’s green ink, are closely guarded secrets.
At the printer, the paper undergoes a three-stage process that adds subtle background colors and uses engraved plates to print front and back images, apply color-shifting ink and add texture.
The press is capable of printing 10,000 sheets per hour, and the BEP produces an average of 38 million notes a day with a face value of approximately $541 million. Nearly all of it is used to replace notes that are already in circulation.
IS THE $1 BILL HERE TO STAY?
The most widely circulated U.S. note, the $1 bill featuring George Washington on the front and the Great Seal of the United States on the back, has managed to keep the same design for the past 50 years. The less common $2 bill with Thomas Jefferson has also been exempt from the recent redesign campaign.
Since 1971, the U.S. government has tried to encourage the use of more durable $1 coins as a replacement for paper bills. Metal coins are able to stay in circulation for an average of 25 years. According to the U.S. Congress’ General Accounting Office (GAO), the switch would save $4.4 billion over 30 years. But in practice, the U.S. public has repeatedly shown it prefers paper.
Some of the public resistance has centered on confusion with similarly sized coins, objection to the weight of carrying metal, as opposed to paper, and the inability to use them in older vending machines.
But the U.S. Mint has continued to produce dollar coins. Beginning in 2000, the government has minted a coin bearing the likeness of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who guided and interpreted for the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 19th century. There are now approximately 1 billion Sacagawea dollars in circulation. A newer series of dollar coins has been minted since 2007 honoring former U.S. presidents.
Increased circulation and familiarity with the $1 coin could finally help it to gain greater acceptance. At the same time, the role of all U.S. paper and coin currency may be changing, thanks to the growing popularity of electronic and credit card transactions.