J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Natural Protection against Counterfeiting

Sure, I’m intrigued by a mysterious box found under a government building filled with rare coins left by Freemasons, Revolutionaries, and Know-Nothings.

But the news story from last week about eighteenth-century money that really caught my interest was this discovery from Pennsylvania.

During the Seven Years’ War, Delaware issued a bunch of paper notes to circulate as currency. Benjamin Franklin and his business partner, David Hall, won the contract to produce those notes. To do so, they had to create a design that was distinctive and hard to counterfeit.

The Franklin and Hall shop gathered sage leaves, captured their vein patterns in plaster, and then used that plaster to create metal blocks that could print the leaf patterns in the center of each note. The twenty-shilling piece appears above. The result was a naturally intricate design that was hard to duplicate with available technology. Just to drive home the point, the printers added the words “To Counterfeit, is DEATH.”

Laws usually required the people who printed money to deliver the engraved plates to the government to ensure that neither they nor anyone else printed more without authorization. That’s how we have the copper plate that Paul Revere used to engrave his Boston Massacre image (actually Henry Pelham’s Boston Massacre image, cribbed): Revere used the other side of the plate to engrave currency for Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War and then handed in the piece of metal. It’s still property of the Massachusetts Archives.

As for Franklin and Hall, they would have had to turn over the metal plates of each unique leaf pattern (and perhaps the plaster molds as well). But eventually people lost track of them. They didn’t look like engravings of currency; they looked like pieces of metal with raised leaf patterns.

Recently the University of Connecticut historian Jessica Linker, who was actually at the Delaware County Institute of Science to study early female botanists, recognized that one such metal block with a leaf pattern wasn’t just a floral specimen. It matched Delaware’s 30-shilling piece. No similar printing block had been recognized before.

That artifact is now on loan to the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin founded in 1731, as it prepares an exhibit about printing currency.

The same New York Times column that told that story also reports that in 2016 the Historical Society of Old Newbury will open an exhibit at Jacob Perkins’s engraving plant in Newburyport. Perkins developed a way to engraving on steel that was considered even harder to counterfeit. To tie everything together today, one of his earliest jobs was making the die for Massachusetts’s 1787 copper cent, one of the coins inside the State House time capsule.

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