Currency

Photos: How Dollar Bills Were Made A Century Ago

Every day, tens of millions of crisp, green bills roll off fast, automated presses at the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

A hundred years ago, the process looked very, very different. Back then, it took the bureau a year to make as many bills as it can now make in two days.

These beautiful, old photographs from the Library of Congress were taken near the turn of the 20th century. They show a time when making currency was a slow, hands-on process.

Workers grind a non-removable, green ink into the right viscosity for the presses, circa 1890. Green became the standard color because it made bills harder to alter or counterfeit.

hide captionWorkers grind a non-removable, green ink into the right viscosity for the presses, circa 1890. Green became the standard color because it made bills harder to alter or counterfeit.

Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress
To make them more impressionable, sheets of fibrous paper were dampened before going to printing presses, circa 1890.

hide captionTo make them more impressionable, sheets of fibrous paper were dampened before going to printing presses, circa 1890.

Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress
Hand-run printing presses like these in 1909 produced 45 sheets an hour, while today's automated machines churn out 10,000 in the same amount of time. "This was considered the toughest job at the time," said Franklin Noll, a historical consultant at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "You had to work as fast as you could all the time on a rate where you only got paid for the good sheets." i i

hide captionHand-run printing presses like these in 1909 produced 45 sheets an hour, while today's automated machines churn out 10,000 in the same amount of time. "This was considered the toughest job at the time," said Franklin Noll, a historical consultant at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "You had to work as fast as you could all the time on a rate where you only got paid for the good sheets."

Library of Congress
Hand-run printing presses like these in 1909 produced 45 sheets an hour, while today's automated machines churn out 10,000 in the same amount of time. "This was considered the toughest job at the time," said Franklin Noll, a historical consultant at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "You had to work as fast as you could all the time on a rate where you only got paid for the good sheets."

Hand-run printing presses like these in 1909 produced 45 sheets an hour, while today's automated machines churn out 10,000 in the same amount of time. "This was considered the toughest job at the time," said Franklin Noll, a historical consultant at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "You had to work as fast as you could all the time on a rate where you only got paid for the good sheets."

Library of Congress
In 1914, when this photo was taken, $4.5 million was dried daily in a room that hot air circulated through.

hide captionIn 1914, when this photo was taken, $4.5 million was dried daily in a room that hot air circulated through.

Gift from Herbert A. French, Library of Congress
Workers inspecting sheets of money for printing flaws and smudges, circa 1917. Approved sheets received serial numbers and U.S. Treasury seals.

hide captionWorkers inspecting sheets of money for printing flaws and smudges, circa 1917. Approved sheets received serial numbers and U.S. Treasury seals.

Library of Congress
A woman identified as "Miss Louise Lester" holds a stack of damaged bills, circa 1909. These were thrown down a chute, foreground, and recycled into paper pulp.

hide captionA woman identified as "Miss Louise Lester" holds a stack of damaged bills, circa 1909. These were thrown down a chute, foreground, and recycled into paper pulp.

Gift from Herbert A. French, Library of Congress

Hear a Planet Money story about a company that has made the paper used for U.S. currency since 1879.

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