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Franklin Noll, PhD
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Franklin Noll's Blog on Monetary and Financial History.

Investing In Hard Times

by Franklin Noll on 08/07/20



In this era of economic uncertainty, some people are looking at the possibilities presented by a new asset class: cryptocurrency.

However, this is not the first time in living memory that a new class of assets came into being. Back, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a new form of security was created to help people deal with trying economic times. It was called the US Savings Bond.

Women & Banknote Production

by Franklin Noll on 08/06/20



Women have always played a major role in banknote production. They have done everything from wetting paper to operating numbering machines. However, perhaps their most crucial role in the early days of banknote printing was being a printer's assistant.

The job of a printer's assistant in the 19th and early 20th century was to place a sheet of paper on an inked plate, remove the printed sheet after it ran through the press, inspect the impressions, and place the printed sheet between tissue paper to prevent ink offset.

The printer and his assistant worked as a coordinated team. They worked incredibly fast to maximize production. This was key because the printer was paid by sheet. In fact, the printer's assistant usually worked for the printer--not the banknote company. So, they worked together to produce as many perfect sheets as possible each day.

The photo shows a printer and his assistant producing National Bank Notes on a hand-operated flatbed press in the early 20th century.

Composition in Banknote Design

by Franklin Noll on 08/05/20



Each banknote is like a miniature painting, following the same rules of composition.

A good banknote composition or design will be aesthetically pleasing but also perform the work of incorporating security features and directing the viewer's eye to them.

This movement of the eye around a composition is often called the "line of observation" in the art world. In banknote design, Designer Hans de Heij has coined the term, "navigation path," which I find more useful as the designer is trying to direct the viewer in specific directions.

Much modern banknote design is circular in composition, leading to circular observation or a circular navigation path.

Take as an example the back of the Europa Series, 100 Euro note. The viewer enters the composition at the security feature in the upper left (the focal point), follows the bridge to the right, then down the curve bordering the negative space where the Europa watermark is located to the "100." Then, it is over to the map of Europe and up the curve back to the security feature.

Try this exercise with the currency in your wallet.


Unity Through Banknote Design

by Franklin Noll on 08/04/20



During the American Civil War, banknote design became part of the war effort.

The new National Bank Notes created in 1863, during the middle of the war, were intentionally filled with patriotic messages and images meant to stress the common history of all Americans.

The $100 note, shown below, references a battle from the War of 1812 and shows a vignette of Liberty proclaiming the need to maintain the Union. The back shows the Declaration of Independence.

Such historical education via images was necessary, in part, because the US at the time contained many non-English speaking immigrants and many citizens were only semi-literate. Banknote designs were meant to inform and create conversations among users who would study the notes and teach each other. Such discussions would also help unite the nation.

Perhaps modern banknote designs can glean something from these National Bank Notes.


The Geometric Lathe

by Franklin Noll on 08/03/20



Does anyone recognize this rare piece of banknote equipment? Before Jura, the One System, and other design software, one had to use this machine to create intricate, geometric patterns for designs often referred to as scroll work or guilloche or lathe work.

This is the geometric lathe. It is also known as a rose engine lathe or a guilloche lathe.

Such guilloche was in vogue in the 19th and 20th centuries when complex intaglio was the primary way to thwart counterfeiting. However, the only major currency that still retains a lot of such scroll work is the US Federal Reserve Note, which continues to employ it in its border designs.





Money Washing Machine

by Franklin Noll on 08/01/20



Cash recycling meant something very different in the early 20th century.

Until the 1920s, the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve did not return used currency back into circulation. All notes returning to the Treasury, regardless of condition, were destroyed either by burning or through maceration (turning into pulp).


On exception was a short-lived operation of cleaning used currency in a special washing machine (see image) and then re-issuing it.  The machines were invented by the Treasury and installed in various offices.  Notes were washed, had sizing applied, and were dried at the rate of 35,000 notes a day per machine.

This process ran from around 1910 until 1916. The all-cotton banknotes produced during World War I did not wash well, ending the operation.


Why is the Greenback Green?

by Franklin Noll on 07/31/20



The short answer is that green ink was a security feature in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the 1840s, the search was on for a banknote ink that could not be removed (rubbed out, bleached, etc.) from a note without destroying the paper substrate.  Such an ink would deter counterfeiting, which at the time was primarily accomplished by changing a number on the note or by bleaching the ink off a note and printing a new face on the cleaned security paper.

One chemist discovered such an ink.  And, the underlying chemical caused the ink to be green.  So, green was not an aesthetic choice.  The color was dictated by chemistry.  This ink formulation was patented in 1857 and became known in the banknote industry as patent green ink.

When, during the Civil War, the US Government needed its first banknotes produced, it turned to the American Bank Note Company in New York.  These United States Notes were produced using this patent green ink.  But, this ink was only applied to the front of the notes.  This was done because it was expensive.

So, why are the note backs green?  The problem with patent green ink is that it bled through the paper, creating a reverse image on the back of the banknote.  To cover this up, the US Treasury had the backs of their first banknotes extensively printed in green.  And, upon examination, one can see that the expensive patent green ink on the front of the notes is a lighter color than the cheaper dark green ink used on the back, which was not secure.

Hence, greenbacks have green backs because the faces have patent green ink on them.

The nickname, “Greenback,” can from Union Army troops who received the notes in their pay packets.  Soldiers being soldiers, they just called the notes Greenbacks, because the backs were green.

The use of green backs on these first Government bank notes started a design tradition that lasts until today.

Platering: An Obsolete Banknote Production Process

by Franklin Noll on 07/30/20



Here's an example of an obsolete banknote printing process. The men in the photo are operating a Platering Press, which basically ironed sheets of currency to take out rinkles.

In the days of wet intaglio printing, sheets were repeated moistened before being printed. And, when you are using currency paper that is 75% or 100% linen, a lot of wrinkes develop as anyone who owns linen clothing knows. So, finished currency sheets had to be ironed smooth after printing.

Today's dry printing avoids this problem, and we no longer have Platerers.

A Behind the Scenes Tour of Currency History

by Franklin Noll on 07/30/20



Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the archives of the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) and view rare objects and photographs. This was the first on-camera interview I did while consulting at the BEP. It was done for C-Span back in 2010. It is a quick history of US currency since the Civil War.

The Civil War Debt Crisis

by Franklin Noll on 07/29/20



Emerging from four years of Civil War, the United States was faced with the task of reconstructing its political and economic systems.  As part of this endeavor, from 1865 to 1870, much of the country’s focus was on the massive public debt created during the conflict.  Congress went so far as to pass a constitutional amendment that read in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.”  

As it turns out, the Civil War debt crisis was actually not a financial one, but a political one.  

Read more about it in my article published in Financial History.

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