Artful Tender

Artful Tender

by Jennifer Kennard

Paper money slips through our hands nearly every day, yet most of us rarely notice it. Despite being mindfully aware of its intrinsic value, most of us have become all too desensitised to the true beauty of printed money: the allegorical figures, the exquisite hand lettered numerals, the artistry of the engraver, the crispness of the paper, and the elaborate security measures taken just to thwart would-be counterfeiters.

Under an eyeglass, the beauty of a finely engraved banknote can be just as mesmerising as the wings of a butterfly or the skeletal patterns found in a decayed leaf. Each leaves me in a momentary art trance as I get lost in the details.

I first launched into the world of currency collecting not long after the chance discovery of two uncirculated 1909 Imperial Russian banknotes. Neither were particularly valuable, yet they stood out dramatically against the dull green notes of my own familiar US currency and I was immediately captivated. The five and ten ruble notes were visually stunning with their ornate numerals and their handsome, yet incomprehensible cyrillic lettering. Further examination of these notes under glass revealed many of the intricate rosettes and lacy medallions were printed with two consecutive colours in what appeared to be a single impression. It reminded me of an unusual process that I was just vaguely familiar with, called compound-plate printing. This print process was developed in 1820 by British inventor, Sir William Congreve, as a precautionary measure to foil the growing number of counterfeiters. Using a customised printing press, Congreve cleverly devised a precision method to print an intricate two-colour image in a single impression.

This technological advancement was achieved by simultaneously engraving two interlocking plates—an upper and a lower—inking each in two separate colours, and coupling them back together again to print in one pass.The resulting two-colour impression became a formidable challenge for any forger to duplicate.

“the single most motivating factor influencing the art and design of money is the high cost of counterfeiting”

Illegal Tender

Countless decisions go into the design and process of printing banknotes, though much of it has long been veiled in secrecy. Primarily, paper currency must clearly reflect the stability of a nation, it should inspire confidence and trust, and it should define the strength of a nation's character. Yet the single most motivating factor influencing the art and design of money is the high cost of counterfeiting.

Ever since the emergence of the printing press in the sixteenth century, any enterprising printer with a hint of ingenuity and artistic skill were quick to trail behind, and many did despite the risk of imprisonment or often death. In Colonial America, counterfeiting posed such a serious threat to trade that it undermined the stability of the colonies. As a printer, Benjamin Franklin understood this imposing threat and introduced a crude anti-forgery technique known as nature printing. He recognised the practicality of using a simple leaf to print paper money, as it would be virtually impossible to forge such fine detail. He did not invent the nature printing process, however he devised a method to print longer runs by making an impression of a leaf in a plaster mold and casting the mold in lead. These lead casts were then nailed to wooden blocks, locked up into a printing chase along with the font du jour, Caslon metal type and ornaments, and printed on a unique paper stock he infused with mica particles. Unfortunately, his success with banknote printing came to a close shortly after counterfeit bills using image transfers of his work began appearing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Watermarked paper became another obstacle for the enterprising forger. During the papermaking process, an identifiable mark is formed by carefully thinning the paper fibres in a controlled manner. This visible translucent watermark was one of the earliest and most effective security measures to be adopted in the making of currency in the early nineteenth century. Similar anti-counterfeiting measures, such as prismatic rainbow printing (also known as split-fountain printing, with graduating ink colours laid down in one impression), or paper infused with silk fibres, were short-lived deterrents as counterfeiters were quick to follow step. The only other solution remaining at the time was to increase the complexity of the design and ornamentation. Problem solved: in 1812 Asa Spencer, a Connecticut clockmaker, invented a clever engine-turning device to add ornamentation to watches. This mechanical lathe with all its cams and gears could create endless interlaced patterns (called guilloche) with a repetitive circular motion, which was difficult to duplicate by hand engraving. Spencer's invention soon revolutionised the banknote industry around the world when it was recognised as a highly effective strategy to foil counterfeiters. Once again, necessity nurtures ingenuity.

“These tactical and artful measures are most effective in minimising counterfeiting when many of them are combined together.”

A New Industry is Born

During the mid-nineteenth century, it was estimated that nearly one-third of the currency in circulation in the United States was counterfeit. This was at a time when state-chartered banks each issued their own paper notes, amounting close to 30,000 variations of bills in circulation in the US alone. Britain had similar problems with its “country banks” each issuing their own custom engraved notes. This widespread increase of commercial banknote printing set the stage for counterfeiting of epic proportions, leading to bankruptcies and a financial crisis. Aside from the counterfeiters, those who profited most during this period were a thriving number of engraving firms in the US and England who specialised in securities and currency design. Following the financial panic of 1857, many of these “security printers” (as they came to be broadly known), merged, leading to the formation of the world's largest security firm; the American Bank Note Company. An entire industry—with its jealously guarded production techniques dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—was quick to engage in efforts to outsmart the clever counterfeiter.

The outset of the Civil War soon brought more dramatic changes to the American banknote industry. In order to finance the war efforts, the Treasury Department issued the first federal notes, called “greenbacks” in 1861. By 1865, the state-chartered banknotes were taxed out of existence and the new Bureau of Engraving and Printing assumed production of all federal currency. Counterfeiters were threatened, but not defeated.

Smart Money

While outwitting counterfeiters has been a consistent game of whack-a-mole over the last three centuries, it has also done more to advance technological innovations in security printing than any other event in the history of world money. In addition to many of the nineteenth century strategies used in the line of defence against forgery and counterfeiting, modern measures include the use of holograms, micro-printing, serial numbering, polymer (or polypropylene) banknotes with transparent windows, security threads, magnetic, ultra-violet and infrared sensitive inks to name just a few. These tactical and artful measures are most effective in minimising counterfeiting when many of them are combined together.

“Aside from flags and trade signs, the banknote is one of the earliest recognisable forms of graphic design—originating in seventh century China—long before the printed book.”

User experience enhancements present further challenges to the banknote designer. Paper money must be equally adapted for reading by sight-impaired people as for the automatic bank teller machine. Most modern notes now incorporate metal strips with microdot-printed information enabling the notes to be optically identified and counted by sorting machines. At the same time, many world currencies have adopted practical solutions to assist the visually impaired, such as offering different sizes and colours for various denominations or embossing bills with raised print and other tactile features. Ironically, the US is one of the last countries neglecting to embrace any of these sensible options. Fortunately for some, there are now smartphone apps available to identify various denominations. Another reasonable alternative is to just sort the notes in your wallet according to different denominations by using custom-folds—the surest means to doubling your money!

Aside from flags and trade signs, the banknote is one of the earliest recognisable forms of graphic design—originating in seventh century China—long before the printed book. With exception to allegorical imagery and royalty, women are vastly under represented on paper money. In the nineteenth century these allegorical women dressed in their long robes and olive branch crowns, standing next to cornucopias and bushels of wheat, were considered to be decoration and primarily known as “fancy heads” in the banknote trade. The winds of change have finally begun to blow recently. In 2013 the UK announced the upcoming release of a £10 note featuring British novelist, Jane Austen. Soon after, Pentagram designer Paula Scher fittingly remarked, “I am delighted that the British Government is putting Jane Austen on their paper money. No one wrote better about women and money.” A similar proposal recently announced by the US Treasury Department will add a woman’s portrait to the ten-dollar bill in 2020. Building up to this, there was much debate to have the less popular Andrew Jackson move over instead and let a woman fill his seat on the $20 note.

Others feel it is time they feature a woman on both bills. A number of distinguished American women have been suggested for the role, such as first lady and diplomat, Eleanor Roosevelt; civil rights activist, Rosa Parks; and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. Any of these women would easily fit the bill.

Notable Designers

With all the demands and conditions placed upon designers of paper currency, it should come as no surprise that the entire process of banknote design can often take years from beginning to end. In a sense, this time does equal money, but to the designer, it does not necessarily equal notoriety— unless—you happen to already be a notable designer.

Twentieth century history records a number of noteworthy designers who worked on paper money during their careers. Shortly after Czechoslovakia achieved statehood in 1919, artist Alfons Mucha (1860–1939) designed some of their first banknotes. These stylised notes each recall vague traces of his art nouveau roots, and were engraved by the American Bank Note Company. The accomplished British illustrator and lettering artist, Reynolds Stone (1909–1979) designed the £5 and £10 banknotes in 1963 and 64 respectively. In 1923, the young Austrian designer, Herbert Bayer (1900–1985), was attending the Bauhaus school in Germany when he was called upon to design a series of million mark notes. Because of Germany’s spiraling inflation at that time, the ink was scarcely dry before these notes became worthless.

Other banknote designs are notable simply for being mythical, such as the one designed for the fictitious nation of Antipodes by American designer, W.A. Dwiggins (1880–1956). In his contemptuous 1932 manifesto Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency, particularly in point of its design (just reprinted for The Typophiles, New York by The Kat Ran Press in 2015; David R. Godine, publisher), Dwiggins writes with wit and disdain for the abysmal state of US banknote design, or as he phrased it, “the mongrel style of the federal currency.” In another 1944 preface for George L. McKay's Early American Currency (The Typophiles), Dwiggins contributed this acerbic critique of “the federal paper”:

“You can mark delete against all the ornamental spinach—the acanthus leaves and the little border wiggles—all of it. Delete. It doesn't stop counterfeiters, and as ornament it is foul... You can improve the style of lettering—throw water in its face—slap its jaws—rouse it up out of its 1850 stupor—make it perform the way lettering ought to perform... But the vital, basic trouble that makes it impossible for us to have good designs for our paper currency cannot be cured until the numbering-machine wears out and is scrapped.”

“With all the demands and conditions placed upon designers of paper currency, it should come as no surprise that the entire process of banknote design can often take years from beginning to end.”

“Each banknote becomes an essential telltale graphic artefact of a nation”

Noteworthy Pleasures

Stylistic currents of design come and go, even in world currency. Fortunately there are still contemporary designers who continue to create striking examples of banknotes in all corners of the world. Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Canada and Denmark’s Faroe Islands are just a few countries considered to be producing some of the most visually attractive examples of innovative currency design today. The majority of banknotes use a horizontal landscape orientation, however new research studies have determined that people typically tend to handle money vertically when using automatic teller machines and various other transactions. A number of countries such as Switzerland, Israel, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and Bermuda have adopted the vertically oriented currency in the recent past.

Spare Change

With all the printing technology, handwork, and expertise gained over the past two centuries, it would be a profound loss if paper currency were to cease flourishing. The single-most increasing threat to the future of printed currency today is the move towards electronic money. The central bank of Denmark has already halted the printing of their bills and coins and the government is considering allowing some stores to cease taking paper money altogether. Sweden and Canada are also considering the replacement of their paper notes with digital currency. When I hear this, I can’t help being reminded of the great economist, Maynard Keynes, who believed that creating and appreciating artistic works of true beauty is precisely what brings the most value to our lives. How ironic it would then be to exchange such artfully engraved currency for a virtual monetary abstraction we can’t even see or hold.

Throughout history, the banknote has effectively been the calling card of a nation. It communicates technological accomplishments of a nation’s industry and tells stories of their cultural heritage. Some notes feature native wildlife and natural wonders, while others proudly portray the achievements and contributions of their artists, inventors, explorers and educators. Paper money promotes tourism, nationalism and patriotism. It reveals political ideologies and religious symbolism, and at times it becomes a tool for propaganda. Each banknote becomes an essential telltale graphic artefact of a nation, and it reflects a mirror onto the history of our world. Let’s hope it never completely disappears.

Illustrated by Zoë Barker

This feature is an extract from The Recorder Issue 3. You can buy the full issue on the Monotype Shop, now.