Making Money

Making Money

Bank Note Engraving and the Fight Against Counterfeiting

February 2005 - December 2006

Bank note engraving is widely considered to be the most beautiful and difficult of the engraving and printing arts, and it was created as a direct result of efforts to combat counterfeiters.

The US became a world leader in bank note engraving during the Civil War, when one-third to one-half of the currency in circulation was counterfeit. At that time, 1,600 state banks designed and printed their own bills, and it was very difficult to detect counterfeits from the 7,000 varieties of genuine notes. To counter this problem, banks commissioned some of the country’s top artists to engrave detailed vignettes so that the notes would be difficult to replicate.

When the US adopted a national currency in 1862, the government also employed bank note engravers. More intricate designs and enhanced security features were added to federal notes over the years to stay one step ahead of counterfeiters. Because counterfeiting continues to represent a potential threat to the U.S. economy, the government’s current strategy is to introduce new currency designs every 7–10 years.

"Making Money" features counterfeit notes alongside their genuine counterparts, as well as beautifully engraved bank notes, stock certificates, travelers checks, and uncut sheets of currency from the collection of Mark D. Tomasko, our honorary curator of engraving.

The Museum thanks the US Secret Service, the US Department of the Treasury and the Bureau of Engraving & Printing for their assistance in developing this exhibit.