Evolution of Currency Design

The Secretary of the Treasury is responsible for the design of currency, including portraits which appear on paper currency. By law, only the portrait of a deceased individual may appear on currency (31 U.S.C. § 5114(b)). The major consideration in modern currency design is to prevent that note from being counterfeited. This has been true from the beginning of the United States currency and has evolved alongside technology.

Plate Printer and Assistant in Pressroom, c.1895
Early currency printing at the BEP was accomplished on hand cranked, flatbed presses referred to as spider presses because of the long spokes used to move the plate and paper through the press. The plate printer inked and polished the plates and operated the press while the printer’s assistant was responsible for the careful placement of blank sheets onto the press and removal and stacking of the finished printed items.
(Photo date c.1893)

The federal government began issuing its own paper currencies during the beginning of the Civil War in order to pay for the war effort. These early national currencies included Demand Notes, Fractional Currency, United States Notes, National Bank Notes, and Gold Certificates. When these notes were issued, the primary security features were engraved images, the use of color, and distinctive rag-based currency paper.

Highly complex and intricate engravings of imagery that were familiar and visually pleasing to the currency user served as a major deterrent. Other counterfeit deterrents included color ink and the application of metallic powders (referred to as bronzing) as well as the use of distinctive paper with color fibers and other elements suspended within the paper. This was in response to the threat of black and white photocopying, a readily available technology that made it fairly easy for an individual to reproduce a note that was printed only with black ink on white paper. With the addition of color—both in and on the note—U.S. currency was fairly well protected against would be counterfeiters.


Currency in the 20th century

By the start of the twentieth century, there were four types of currency in circulation: United States Notes, National Bank Notes, Gold Certificates, and Silver Certificates. However, it was not long until a new form of currency was introduced—Federal Reserve notes.

BEP Designer Clair Aubrey Huston, c.1902-1920
BEP banknote designers develop the overall look, layout, and artistic details of U.S. paper currency. Clair Aubrey Huston, BEP Designer, 1902-1935, works on a desktop easel and assorted tools of the trade—papers, a watercolor paint set, along with reference books and artwork are visible.
(Photo date c.1902-1920)

The Federal Reserve Act of December 23, 1913, authorized the issuance of Federal Reserve notes. Federal Reserve notes were initially issued in denominations of $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. The $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 were added in 1918. The $1 note was added in 1963 and the $2 note in 1976. By the late twentieth century, the United States Notes, National Bank Notes, Gold Certificates, and Silver Certificates ceased to be issued, making the Federal Reserve note the only U.S. currency printed and issued today.

During the early 1900s, with other types of currency in circulation, the United States had multiple series in circulation; each series had multiple denominations; and each denomination had a different design. This led to public confusion as the $20 note circulated in a number of different forms. The multiplicity of notes made it easier for counterfeiters, especially the practice of “raising” notes (for example taking a $10 note and changing the 10s to 100s). 

In 1929, the look of U.S. paper currency changed significantly and brought order to currency types and designs. Note size was reduced and designs were standardized. The use of specific portraits for specific denominations became standardized.   During the design phase of the 1928 series, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon decided to include three other well-known Americans on U.S. currency: Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury; Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War and an advocate for the National Banking System; and Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father, inventor, statesman, and printer.

Establishing the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee

For many years, the designs created for the 1928 series proved resistant to counterfeiting. However, by the late twentieth century, U.S. currency design had to evolve further in response to security threats posed by more sophisticated banknote counterfeiting brought on by advances in reproduction equipment. In response to these challenges, an Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee was established in 1982 at the Department of the Treasury to monitor the counterfeiting threat and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury in regards to addressing these threats. The ACD acts as liaison to the Secretary of the Treasury, reporting the combined findings of the committee, which includes senior executives from the Department of the Treasury, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), the United States Secret Service (USSS), and the Cash Product Office of the Federal Reserve System. 

The ACD explores existing and emerging technologies to deter the counterfeiting of U.S. currency in the U.S. and worldwide. As a result, the most recent Federal Reserve note designs include several different levels of security features, each specifically designed to permit detection and rejection of counterfeits by the Federal Reserve System, the makers of banknote equipment manufacturers, and users of United States currency.

Designing currency

After the security features are chosen, BEP banknote designers integrate them into the design to develop the overall look, layout, and artistic details of U.S. paper currency. Banknote designers are specialized in both art and manufacturing. The design of money begins with ideas and rough sketches. Then, like piecing together a puzzle, banknote designers must incorporate design elements around selected security features, while maintaining the “look and feel” commonly identified with U.S. currency. Designers strive to retain familiar elements and convey an image that is uniquely American and reflects the strength of our economy.

BEP Modeler and Designer Clarence Holbert, c. 1978
Whether working with digital or traditional tools, banknote designers all have extensive training and expertise in the visual fundamentals of line, form, color, and composition—all of which are key to successful currency design. Using traditional pencil, paper, and paints, BEP modeler and designer Clarence Holbert works on the design of a $1 Federal Reserve note face.
(Photo date c.1978)

Banknote designers use both cutting-edge, digital technology and classic tools like pencil to develop banknote concepts. They must not only take the imagery of a note in consideration, but also its reproducibility during manufacturing—considering how details such as outlines, tone, and shading will "translate" when engraved and printed on an intaglio press because each stage of the manufacturing process has its own technical requirements. A design concept typically includes dozens of iterations and extensive testing over several years before a final design concept is presented to the Secretary of the Treasury for approval.