Thursday, May 1, 2008

Engraving and Printing

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing at sunrise.
Paper currency is printed and circulated from this location and one in Texas.
Click images to enlarge.

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) is an arm of the U.S. Department of Treasury. It is the bureau charged with engraving and printing U.S. paper currency. There are two BEPs: this one in Washington and a facility in Fort Worth, TX. (Contrary to popular myth, the BEP is not charged with making coins. Coins are cut and stamped at mints. U.S. Mints are located in Philadelphia, PA, Denver, CO, San Francisco, CA, and West Point, NY. A bullion depository is located in Fort Knox, KY. The Mint is headquartered in Washington, DC, but it does not mint coins.)

The most common denomination in U.S. paper currency is the $1 bill. The highest is the $100 note. At one time, the BEP also printed $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and even a $100,000 (Gold Certificate 1934 Series) but it discontinued printing and circulating these notes in the 1930s. Today's denominations come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills and feature, respectively, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Franklin. In recent years, U.S. currency has received a facelift, incorporating color into the designs and embedding anti-counterfeiting devices.

U.S. currency is still made using the age-old craft of intaglio printing. This involves a master craftsperson who engraves a plate of metal by hand with the images that will appear on the denomination. This plate is then wrapped on a cylinder, which is coated with a top secret dye that is then embedded into the equally top secret cotton-fiber paper stock. The result is a note with a three-dimensional appearance and a slightly raised texture. (Crane & Co., one of the oldest paper manufacturers in America, is the exclusive producer of currency paper stock for the BEP. You won't find information about their currency papers on their website, but you will find a beautiful selection of fine papers and stationary! They also have a retail location in Tyson's Corner.)

The BEP has been printing and circulating currency since 1861, when an act of Congress created the bureau. Prior to that, money was printed regionally and by banks. The result was a mish-mash of currencies and a great deal of fraud and bank failure. The BEP also prints other security documents and certificates for the government, U.S. postage stamps, and all White House invitations for events like state dinners and inaugurations. The BEP is open to the public for tours and is one of Washington's most popular attractions.

Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 3/08

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