How Franklin Thwarted Counterfeiters

Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia printing shop made plaster molds from pressed sage leaves to create metal stamps for marking foliage patterns on Colonial currency.

The distinctive contours of leaf spines, stems and veins were meant to thwart counterfeiters, and Franklin’s workers managed to keep the casting technique a secret that has puzzled modern scholars, too.

20 shilling note printed by Ben Franklin.
Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

James N. Green, the librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia (founded by Franklin in 1731), had wondered for the last two decades if any of Franklin’s actual metal leaf-printing blocks for the bills survived. He had concluded that if one of these castings ever did emerge, it would be “a really sensational discovery,” he said in an interview last month.

Such a discovery has been made in a vault at the Delaware County Institute of Science in Media, Pa. Jessica Linker, a historian who is studying early female botanists, recognized the sage leaf patterns on one of Franklin’s metal blocks when the institute staff opened the box it was stored in. The block is now on loan to the Library Company, which is planning to exhibit it with related printing equipment and currency. Its three parallel sage leaves match images on Franklin’s 1760s shilling notes for Delaware’s government; the bills bear the slogan “To Counterfeit is DEATH.”

Hardly any early American metal printing blocks survive; most were melted down into raw material for new type. Fragments dating to the 1600s have been excavated at Harvard Yard, and early-19th-century metal letters surfaced at the construction site for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Colonial shillings on paper, however, are relatively common. They bring a few hundred dollars each at auction, as do antique counterfeits.

Artifacts from America’s centuries of battles against currency forgers have become popular museum displays as well. Mark Tomasko, a collector and historian who has collaborated with institutions including the Museum of American Finance and the American Numismatic Society on related shows, said that fake bank notes and the tools used to create and detect them were “a constant interest.”

He has sought out material related to the American inventor Jacob Perkins; in the 1790s, Perkins developed steel plates for printing currency that were considered nearly impossible to fake. Perkins’s engraving plant has been restored in Newburyport, Mass., and the Historical Society of Old Newbury is developing exhibitions there that are scheduled to open in 2016.

This article was originally written by Eve M. Kahn and published December 12, 2014 on the New York Times Art and Design website.

A version of this article appears in print on December 12, 2014, on page C31 of the New York edition with the headline: How Franklin Thwarted Counterfeiters.

This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in the piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.

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