15 September 2023

Franklin’s Currency

Welcome back. Before beginning this post about Benjamin Franklin, I did a quick search. I wanted to know if the accomplishment I planned to describe was just one of the many that are usually singled out (e.g., Franklin stove, bifocals, signed Declaration of Independence and Constitution, first Postmaster General of U.S.). That wouldn’t have diminished the study I’ll be reviewing; I would just have framed the post differently.

In any event, I found nothing that gave a top billing to Franklin being a preeminent proponent of the new Colonial and Continental paper monetary system in 18th-century America.

Benjamin Franklin on U.S. $100 bill.

Colonies’ Need for Paper Money
As the study by researchers affiliated with the University of Notre Dame laid out, Franklin saw that the Colonies’ financial independence was integral with its political independence. The silver and gold coins brought from Britain were being depleted to pay for imported goods, leaving the Colonies without a sufficient monetary supply.

Recognizing the need for paper money to end the dependence on the British trading system, he helped print Continental money, in time establishing a network of printers. But there was one major problem--counterfeiting.

When Franklin opened his first printing house in 1728, paper money was a relatively new concept. There were no standardized bills, opening the door for counterfeiters. In response, Franklin designed and printed his money, embedding a suite of security features to make his bills distinctive, such as producing nature prints from actual leaf prints, replicating vein tracings with lead casts.

Franklin’s 20 shillings note printed in 1739 featured leaf patterns that counterfeiters found difficult to copy (Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences from apnews.com/article/benjamin-franklin-counterfeit-colonial-money-currency-a1063605531aeeb4a2cb2826a89e27b0).
Reconstructing Franklin’s Printing Decisions
The Notre Dame researchers learned that the ledger where Franklin recorded his printing decisions and methods to stay ahead of counterfeiters was lost. They set out to reconstruct some of what that record would have shown, examining nearly 600 rare and archival, 1709-1790, paper money notes from the Rare Books and Special Collections of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library.

They employed several advanced atomic-level imaging methods--Raman, infrared, electron energy-loss spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence, and aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy. Their analyses compared the chemical compositions of the paper fibers, inks and fillers in the notes printed by Franklin’s printing network, other Colonial printers and counterfeiters.

Employing spectroscopic and imaging instruments to analyze Franklin’s paper money (from news.nd.edu/news/all-about-the-benjamins-researchers-decipher-the-secrets-of-benjamin-franklins-paper-money/).

Some Key Findings
Pigments--The counterfeit notes had large quantities of calcium and phosphorus, which were found in only trace amounts in the genuine notes.

Franklin used lamp black, a pigment created by burning vegetable oils, for most printing; however, his currency used a special black dye made from graphite found in rock. This pigment is also different from the bone black made from burned bone, which was favored by counterfeiters and non-Franklin printing houses.

Fibers--Franklin included tiny fibers in the paper pulp, appearing as pigmented squiggles in the paper notes. This security technique has been credited to a paper manufacturer in 1844, yet Franklin was including colored silks in his paper much earlier.

Section of a 6 shillings note printed by J. Adams in 1776 with blue threads counterfeiters found difficult to copy (Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences from apnews.com/article/benjamin-franklin-counterfeit-colonial-money-currency-a1063605531aeeb4a2cb2826a89e27b0).
Muscovite--Notes printed by Franklin’s network have a distinctive look due to the addition of a translucent material they identified as muscovite, the most common member of the mica group. The size of the muscovite crystals increased over time. The researchers speculate that Franklin began adding muscovite to make his printed notes more durable and continued to add it when it proved to be a deterrent to counterfeiters.

Wrap Up
The researchers conclude that their study provides a unique perspective into Franklin’s ingenious ways for safeguarding paper money, the materials and historical instances of money manufacturing. Their findings also shed light on Franklin’s role as an inventor in the pre-Federal American fiscal enterprise.

Thanks for stopping by.

Example articles with Franklin’s accomplishments:
Article on U.S. history of paper currency in Atlanta Gold & Coin Buyers: atlantagoldandcoin.com/paper-currency-u-s-brief-history/

Study of Franklin’s innovations in paper money in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.2301856120
Articles on study on EurekAlert! website and Notre Dame News:

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