The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Federal Reserve Notes are a prime example of paper currency designed and produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The BEP is a government agency within the United States Department of the Treasury that designs and produces a variety of security products for the United States government. In addition to paper currency, the BEP produces Treasury securities; military commissions and award certificates; invitations and admission cards; different types of identification cards, forms, and other special security documents for a variety of government agencies. The BEP does not produce coins; all coinage is produced by the United States Mint.

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Salmon P. Chase Secretary of the Treasury

In July 1861, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to issue paper currency in lieu of coins due to the lack of funds needed to support the Civil War. The paper notes were essentially intended to be government IOUs called Demand Notes. Demand Notes were payable “on demand” in coin at certain Treasury facilities. At this time the government had no facility for the production of paper money so a private firm produced the Demand Notes in sheets of four. These sheets were then sent to the Treasury Department where dozens of clerks signed the notes and scores of workers cut the sheets and trimmed the notes by hand. In 1862, the Second Legal Tender Act authorized the Treasury Secretary to engrave and print notes at the Treasury Department.

In the beginning, the currency processing operations in the Treasury were not formally organized. In 1863, congress developed the Office of Comptroller of the Currency and National Currency Bureau. For years, the currency operations were known by various semi-official labels, such as the “Printing Bureau,” “Small Note Bureau,” “Currency Department,” and “Small Note Room.”  It was not until 1874 that the “Bureau of Engraving and Printing” was officially recognized in congressional legislation with a specific allocation of operating funds for the fiscal year of 1875.

From almost the very beginning of its operations, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing designed and printed a variety of products in addition to currency. As early as 1864, the offices which would later become the BEP made passports for the State Department and money orders for the Post Office Department. Other early items produced by the BEP included various government debt instruments, such as interest-bearing notes, refunding certificates, compound interest Treasury notes, and bonds.

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Issue of 1894 1st postage stamp

In July of 1894, the BEP officially took over production of postage stamps for the United States government. The first of the works printed by the BEP was placed on sale on July 18, 1894, and by the end of the first year of stamp production, the BEP had printed and delivered more than 2.1 billion stamps. The United States Postal Service switched purely to private postage stamp printers in 2005, ending 111 years of production by the Bureau. Starting in 2011 the United States Postal Service in-housed all postage stamp printing services.

 

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Aerial view of the BEP in Washington, D.C. circa 1918

In 1918 the invention of the power press increased plate capacity from four to eight notes per sheet, this was done to expand the production requirements related to World War I. With the redesign of currency in 1929, we saw the first major change since paper currency was first issued in 186. Note design was not only standardized but note size was also significantly reduced. Due to this reduction in size, the Bureau was able to convert from eight-note printing plates to twelve-note plates. The redesign effort came about for several reasons, chief among them a reduction in paper costs and improved counterfeit deterrence through better public recognition of currency features.

A further increase in the number of notes per sheet was realized in 1952 when the BEP experimented with new inks that dried faster. The Bureau was able to convert from 12-note printing plates to plates capable of printing 18 notes in 1952. Five years later in 1957, the Bureau began printing currency via the dry intaglio method that utilizes special paper and non-offset inks, enabling a further increase from 18 to 32 notes per sheet. Since 1968, all currency has been printed by means of the dry intaglio process, whereby wetting of the paper prior to printing is unnecessary. In this process, fine-line engravings are transferred to steel plates from which an impression is made on sheets of distinctive paper. Ink is applied to a plate containing 32 note impressions, which is then wiped clean, leaving ink in the engraved lines. The plate is pressed against the sheet of paper with such pressure as to actually press the paper into the lines of the plate to pick up the ink. Both faces and backs are printed in this manner – backs first. After the faces are printed, the sheets are then typographically overprinted with Treasury Seals and serial numbers.

With production facilities in Washington, DC, and Fort Worth, Texas, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has been the largest producer of government security documents in the United States since 1861!

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All About the Hamiltons

One of the most popular names in America today was overlooked for decades until an unlikely pop culture sensation revived his legacy: Alexander Hamilton. In fact, our first Secretary of the Treasury was due to be removed from the $10 bill until his resurgence in popularity following the 2015 debut of the eponymous Broadway hit. The faces on United States bills have remained the same since 1929 (see a bill from that year here), when it was decided that faces of “permanent familiarity” should be the ones depicted. But that is about to change.

On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the Treasury announced their intention to keep Hamilton on the $10, and replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 instead. How did a Secretary of the Treasury become so popular, and how has Hamilton’s life shaped America’s money?

As anyone familiar with the hit musical and Grammy-winning cast album can tell you, Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock “in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” only to leave his humble beginnings behind to pursue education on the mainland. Finding himself caught up in the revolutionary whirl of 1770’s New York, Hamilton soon distinguished himself through military strategy and oratory, eventually becoming Washington’s trusted aide-de-camp. During the war, Hamilton also devoted himself to the study of finance, developing a wealth of knowledge that quickly made him the forerunner for the new office of Secretary of the Treasury in the up-and-coming United States. Hamilton’s daring plan to have the new Federal government assume the states’ war debts put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several other Founding Fathers, though his ideas won out in the end. Hamilton did not live to see the long-term effects of his financial plan; on July 12, 1804, the 49-year-old Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. While strongly opinionated and prone to argument, Hamilton was nonetheless beloved by many Americans; his death was widely mourned.

Not mentioned in the musical is the fact that Hamilton also founded the U.S. Mint, and oversaw the first coins made for the new country after the acceptance of the Constitution. He is one of only two non-Presidents on American currency (the other being Franklin, on the $100 bill), and the only person depicted on American currency who was not born in the United States. He has been depicted on 8 types of US currency, in 7 different denominations: the 1862 $2 Note; the 1861 $5 Demand Note and $5 1862 United States Note; the $10 Federal Reserve Note, Gold Certificate, and Silver Certificate since 1928; the $20 US Note beginning in 1869; the $50 denomination of 1862-69 US Notes, 1862-64 Interest-Bearing Notes, 1907 Certificates of Indebtedness, and 1863-63 Compound Interest Treasury Notes; the 1864 $500 Interest Bearing Note, and the 1918 Series $1000 Federal Reserve Note.

Hamilton has been a part of American finance and currency from the very beginning; he has been a constant presence in our wallets, even if not in our minds. It’s fitting that the bombastic first Secretary of the Treasury should retain his place due to an uproarious musical that speaks to the heart of his beloved America.
Did you know? Women, including Martha Washington, Pocahontas, and Lady Liberty, have been on American currency before. You can read all about that history hereThis isn’t the first time a woman on currency has sparked intense debate, either! Do you know the story of the 1891 Silver Certificate scandal?