The American Bank Note Company. In the business of making money.

July 18, 2008



When we use cash do we ever really stop to think about how it is made? 


After reading The Story of the American Bank Note Company by William H. Griffiths (1958), I inspected my paper money.  I happen to have several types of five unit currency in my wallet – euros, CND and US dollars.  There are two common anti-counterfeiting devices that are common to all three bills which become visible when they are held up to the light.  Embedded in each is a thin band running vertically and off center with the currency amount written on it.  Secondly, they have shadow images that repeat the picture featured on the face of the bill: in the Canadian and US bills these are people (Sir Wilfred Laurier and Abraham Lincoln); in the case of the Euro it is a repetition of the architectural form.[1]


A fascinating aspect of money is its material history – the ways in which it was physically confectioned and by whom, to resist counterfeiting and ‘raising’ (adding value through alteration).  The American Bank Note Company was once responsible for printing the paper currency in the United States.  It started as an association of private engraving firms in 1858.  In 1879, it became a single consolidated company following an act of Congress in the wake of the Civil War stating that “not more than one printing on a National Currency Note could be executed by a private organization, and that the final printing must be done by the Treasure Department” (p 48).  The company went public in 1916.


Methods of security printing have developed incrementally out of a kind of a technique called ‘intaglio’ where lines impressed into a surface are filled with ink and run through a steel-plate printing press.  Uniformity has been key since the comparison of a bill against one known to be genuine is a simple way of revealing forgery.  As Griffiths points out however, “while the general tendency of industry is to eliminate the personal characteristics of individual craftsmen, bank note engraving carefully continues them, even stresses them, because, despite all technological advances, the counterfeiter’s most baffling problem in the unique personality of the artist which the engraving process transmits directly to the document.” (p 11)  Thus the artistry and innovation of master engravers has mattered enormously to defeating unauthorized duplication.  One such technique is the ‘geometric lathe’ a machine that engraves a unique repetitive pattern according to particular settings use to make the distinctive figured borders on U.S. notes.  These early techniques have been supplemented by more ‘scientific’ ones, such as printing serial numbers in private formulas of contrasting inks.


The same techniques used for printing paper money (also used for postage stamps) were an important part of issuing stock and bond certificates.  In 1874, following numerous cases of fraud, Edwards Barndon, then Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange’s Committee on Securities, announced that it would require “all future applications to place Securities on the List, that they shall be carefully engraved by some responsible Bank Note Engraving Company”.  He further recommended “that Certificates of Stock of One-hundred Shares should have the denomination conspicuously engraved thereon, and that Certificates of lesser denominations should be of a different style and color” (p 46),  It follows that ‘bond paper’, invented and named by Zenas Crane, refers to paper impregnated with parallel silk threads for printing bonds and currency.  And it was engraver Asher Durand who popularized the convention of placing “Greek gods and goddesses in vignettes on documents of value” (p 29).

The techniques of security printing have a specific history.  Although notes, stocks and bonds are different ‘dispositifs of value’, it is interesting to consider how they were once literally, visually and physically assembled by the same producers.  Moreover, many of these production techniques – in and of themselves a distinct means of ‘making value’ – seem to have circulated out of this precise commercial location of invention, into government agencies and throughout the rest of the world.  It is indeed noteworthy that The American Bank Note Company printed bills for Greece and Columbia as early as 1862; in 1912, the newly formed Chinese Republic put in an order for notes; during WWI it was hired by the U.S. treasury to reorganize the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as well as to assist in the issuance of savings bonds and stamps; and in 1952 it began printing United Nations postage stamps – just to name a few of the company’s important customers.


That we no longer inspect each bill as we receive it may be a sign of our trust in money; but it is a trust that has been empirically established out of the widespread success of its material production as a ‘thing of value’.




Griffiths, William H. The Story of the American Bank Note Company: American Bank Note Company, 1958.


[1] There are other security features that are not shared by all the bills.  When held up to the light, a five appears in the middle of the Canadian bill, while the incomplete 5 in the top left hand corner of the Euro bill completes itself.  Moreover, the Canadian and Euro money has a shiny holograph bearing silver band running down each side.


4 Responses to “The American Bank Note Company. In the business of making money.”

  1. danielbeunza Says:

    Very interesting. Traditionally, I have uninterested in money. Typically, artists and (even worse) academics engage with money when they want to talk “capital”. (See, for example, the work of Sophie Calle and others). Thus, they show paper bills, they distort them or play with the graphic design… a case of what Michael Lynch calls “misplaced concreteness.” But what this post suggests is that, in fact, art has a legitimate role in ensuring the integrity of the economic system. Still, I wonder whether money in itself is a worthwhile topic for academics interested in understanding the economy.

  2. marthapoon Says:

    Daniel – What captured my attention in this story is how the stability of paper money participates in the stability of value, just as truth can be captured in a contract or a book… but only once the document has acquired the qualites that allow the reader to separate fact from fiction.

    Money has largely been studied as a ‘symbolic’ good in the social sciences, so the purpose of the post was to point to the very material aspects of ‘making money’.

    You are right to wonder about whether money rather than value is a central object of concern, but I did think it was fascinating that the same techniques used to make money real, were also used for what are ostensibly more sophisticated carriers of value such as stock and bond certificates…

    There are historical relationships between low and high financial instruments…

  3. danielbeunza Says:

    I get it now. And I agree. It reminds me of the work of Alexandre Mallard on how the materiality of a business card (rectangular cardboard, more durable than paper, more portable than metal, more write-able than plastic) facilitates adding nodes to one’s social network. And why, just as the paperless office never worked, the “paperless wallet” that cellphone manufacturers and large telecoms have in mind may never come to fruition.

  4. marthapoon Says:

    That being said, stock and bond transactions do seem to be certificate free these days, no? There is the possibility of generating other kinds of papers such as account statements but even these are getting scarce. The same is true for money. Cards, account to account transfers, paypal and so on… Cash is no longer the only form that monetary values takes.

    Yet the new paperless forms of value instruments are not immaterial either as some social scientists have claimed. They depend on the rise of information infrastructures, databases, grid computing, fiber optic cables, wireless routers, software interfaces, IT professionals and more.

    The analytic questions seems to be to identify the right kind of materiality through which to study the properties of a system of circulating value.

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