The American colonies had a serious problem. Most did not have large reserves of precious metal with which to make legal tender coins, but not enough coins were coming in from England. To offset this, many of the colonies began printing their own paper money. Unsurprisingly, this lead to new problems: not every note was worth the same between colonies, and some colonies printed so much that they could never hope to redeem all of it. Worst of all, paper money was easy to replicate; a sentence of death on counterfeiting wasn’t much of a deterrent.
Enter Founding Father and quintessential American genius Benjamin Franklin. Before the fight for independence, while Franklin was still a Philadelphia printer, he was charged printing money for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and others. It was also hoped that the brilliant printer would find a way to make currency more secure. His solutions were equal parts psychology and technology.
Franklin’s first technique was as simple as it was brilliant: he simply misspelled Pennsylvania on the colony’s bills. A forger, he argued, would think the real bill was a fake with a misspelling, and use the real spelling on his new fake bills.
But it was his second anti-counterfeiting technique that really changed things. Franklin realized that no man-made engraving would be as difficult to reproduce as the natural “engraving” of the veins on a simple leaf. Better yet, a print from a leaf would be unique to that leaf, and not replicable by any other. Using different leaves for different denominations of notes, Franklin softened a leaf by covering it with a damp cloth, and then pressed it into plaster. When the plaster cured, the delicate imprint of the leaf remained. Copper was poured into the impression to make a plate for printing.
Until very recently, this process was only a guess, as no extant records of the process were known. However, three 18th-century metal blocks found in a vault at the Delaware County Institute of Science in Pennsylvania (now in the care of the Library Company of Philadelphia) turned out to be plates from this printing process (though likely from a successor, not Franklin himself). Such items rarely survived more than a few years, as metal dies were usually melted down and recast into other objects once they became too worn for printing. One of the blocks was one of the leaf plates; the other two were decorative.
According to CoinBooks.org, “Using some very high resolution digital photography, and matching the blocks to currency in the collections of Winterthur and the American Antiquarian Society, as well as that from DCIS, Linker and Green determined that all the blocks were—in fact—cast, making possible some of their more intricate devices, such as variable surface height so that some low-relief areas print as gray—rather than the firm black of the higher relief elements and the white of recessed areas—and cross-hatching scored into the lead after casting.” This process resulted in a print that was virtually impossible to replicate by engraving or any other counterfeiting technology of the time. The blocks from the DCIS feature three sage leaves, which appeared on Franklin’s shilling bills for Delaware in the 1760’s; the slogan on these bills was, appropriately enough, “To Counterfeit is DEATH.”
Even with Franklin’s ingenious new anti-counterfeiting technology, public faith in paper money continued to decline, especially during the War for Independence, when money printed by the new American government was practically worthless. The new Congress resolved in early 1776, “that if any person shall hereafter be so lost to all virtue and regard for his country, as to refuse to receive said bills in payment,” or obstruct or discourage the currency or circulation thereof, . . . such person shall be deemed, published, and treated as an enemy of his country, and precluded from all trade or intercourse with the inhabitants of these colonies.” The British even produced large quantities of excellent forgeries of American paper money, furthering the distrust of currency. It wasn’t until the Secret Service took over the persecution of counterfeiting in 1865 that public trust in currency began to reach acceptable levels.
Counterfeiting has been a concern for as long as human civilizations have used money of any sort. But it is rare to see an anti-counterfeiting measure as ingenious as Franklin’s.