BUSINESS > An
Overview of the U.S. Economy > Dollars & Cents: Fundamental
Facts About U.S. Money
All U.S. currency is produced by the Bureau
of Engraving and Printing, which also designs,
engraves, and prints items such as postage
stamps. The box below describes how currency
Since 1862 all U.S. currency has been printed
in Washington, D.C., but to help meet increasing
demand, a second printing facility was opened
in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1991. Fort Worth now
produces about half the nation's currency.
Because U.S. currency is universally accepted
and trusted, it is widely counterfeited. The
U.S. Secret Service was created in 1865 to
curtail counterfeiting. (See tips for spotting
is printed by the
steel plate method,
a complicated procedure
that gives notes
an embossed feel
and other distinctive
For security reasons
each feature of
script, and scrollwork—is
the work of a separate,
engraver. A geometric
lathe is used to
produce the intricate
lacy design and
A steel die is made
of each feature.
Rolls made from these
dies are put together
into a master die
of the complete note.
The master die is
then used in the
first of a series
of operations leading
to the making of
press plates from
which the notes are
U.S. currency has many features that deter
counterfeiters. One is the cotton and linen
rag paper it is printed on. The paper has a
distinctive, pliable feel and has tiny red
and blue fibers embedded in it. Though a commercial
company produces the paper, it is illegal for
anyone to manufacture or use a similar type
except by special authority. Special inks manufactured
by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing according
to secret formulas also help prevent counterfeiting.
As technology advances and copiers, printers,
electronic digital scanners, color work stations,
and computers become more sophisticated, more
advanced security features have been added
to deter counterfeiting. Two of these advanced
features—a security thread and microprinting—were
first added in series 1990 notes. These two
features and a number of additional ones were
incorporated into a series of completely redesigned
notes that first appeared in 1996 with the
$100 note. The redesigned $50 and $20 notes
were issued in 1997 and 1998, respectively.
The redesigned $10 and $5 notes, issued in
2000, include most of the new features.
Redesigned and existing notes will circulate
at the same time. As older notes wear out and
as the new-design currency is available, the
new notes will replace the older ones. Of course,
all U.S. money, whether old or new, retains
its full value as the United States has never
recalled any of its currency.
In determining what features would be most
effective in deterring counterfeiting of U.S.
currency, more than 120 security features were
examined and tested, including some used in
other nations' currencies. The features chosen
are illustrated in the diagram and described
One of the most noticeable changes is a larger,
slightly off-center portrait that incorporates
more detail. Moving the portrait off-center
reduces wear on the portrait and provides
more room for the watermark.
A watermark, created during the paper-making
process, depicts the same historical figure
as the portrait. It is visible from both
sides when held up to a light.
An embedded polymer strip, positioned in a
unique spot for each denomination, guards against
counterfeiting. The thread itself, visible
when held up to a bright light, contains microprinting—the
letters USA, the denomination of the
bill, and, on the $50 and $20, a flag. When
viewed under ultraviolet light, the thread
glows a distinctive color for each denomination.
The ink used in the numeral in the lower right-hand
corner on the front of the bill looks green
when viewed straight on but black when viewed
at an angle.
Microprinting, which can be read only with
a magnifier and becomes blurred when copied,
appears in unique places on each denomination.
For example, on the $20 bill, it appears
around the border of the portrait and within
the number in the lower left corner.
Fine-line printing patterns appear on both
sides of the note, in the background of the
portrait and the buildings. This type of printing
is difficult to reproduce on scanning equipment
or replicate by other printing methods.
Other Design Features
A large dark numeral on the back of the note
makes it easier for people with low vision
to identify the note's denomination.
Several other design characteristics of U.S.
notes, some of which are shown in the diagram,
are described below.
The series identification shows the year the
note design was first used. If a slight change
is made in the note that does not require
a completely new engraving plate—for
example, a change in signature when the Secretary
of the Treasury or the Treasurer of the United
States changes—the year remains the
same and a letter is added to show that the
design differs slightly from previous printings.
The number of changes is shown by the appropriate
letter of the alphabet. A C suffix,
for example, as in "Series 1935C," means
that the original design has been changed
slightly three times.
No two notes of the same kind, denomination,
and series have the same serial number. This
fact can be important in detecting counterfeit
notes; many counterfeiters make large batches
of a particular note with the same number.
Notes are numbered in lots of 100 million.
Each lot has a different suffix letter, beginning
with A and following in alphabetical
order through Z, omitting O because
of its similarity to the numeral zero.
Because serial numbers are limited to eight
numerals, a "star" note is substituted
for the 100 millionth note. Star notes also
replace notes damaged in the printing process.
Made up with independent runs of serial numbers,
star notes are exactly like the notes they
replace except that a star is substituted for
one of the serial letters.
Serial numbers on the redesigned, series 1996
currency differ slightly from those of previous
series. The new serial numbers consist of two
prefix letters, eight numerals, and a one-letter
suffix. The first letter of the prefix designates
the series. The second letter of the prefix
designates the Federal Reserve Bank to which
the note was issued.
Until July 1929 U.S. currency was 7.42 inches
by 3.13 inches. Currency printed since 1929
is 6.14 inches by 2.61 inches, a size easier
to handle and less expensive to produce.
The seven denominations of notes now produced
by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing feature
portraits of American statesmen on the face
and emblems and monuments on the back.
Bank tellers and others who know how to handle
currency use the portrait in assembling and
counting it. They assemble each denomination
separately and uniformly—face up and
top up. This practice also helps handlers detect
counterfeit and altered notes. All Reserve
Banks require banks to arrange their currency
for deposit in this way.
God We Trust"
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase first
authorized use of "In God We Trust" on
U.S. money—on the two-cent coin in 1864—after
receiving a number of appeals from citizens
urging that the Deity be recognized on U.S.
coins. In 1955, Congress mandated the use of
this phrase on all currency and coins. All
denominations of paper money now being issued
carry the motto.
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