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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The dollar bills in our wallets are, of course, money, but they are also a product. The government has to buy the paper the bills are printed on from somewhere and for 130 years that somewhere has been Crane & Company, a small, privately owned paper mill in Massachusetts.
David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team paid a visit.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Every dollar bill you've ever touched started here, in an old weathered mill building that, frankly, feels a little bit abandoned. Doug Crane, whose family has run this place for generations, points overhead to a giant, metal medieval-looking sphere. It's like an old diving bell.
DOUG CRANE: It's pretty crazy looking. It's about 15 feet in diameter. It will hold, you know, several thousand pounds of fiber at a time.
KESTENBAUM: So that's the raw material for dollar bills in there?
CRANE: That's right. So that's where it all starts.
KESTENBAUM: What's in that ball cooking away is linen fiber. A dollar bill is 75 percent cotton, 25 percent linen. It's almost like a t-shirt. Dollar bills begin as the most unremarkable stuff. Doug points to damp piles of linen on the floor. It is gray and it smells like wet leaves.
Linen and cotton do make for very sturdy paper. As a quality check, Doug says they do this thing called a fold test, where a machine folds the paper and unfolds it and folds it and unfolds it until it breaks. Currency paper can last 5,000 folds. Normal paper that you'd stick in a copy machine - that, he says, will break after 100.
How does it feel when you're out there in the world and you see someone crumple up a dollar bill and stick it in their pocket?
CRANE: I think it's great. I'm like, you know, this is what the product's made for. It's there to be used and if this is how people want to use it, you know, that's up to them. I think it's fantastic.
KESTENBAUM: How did this little mill end up making the paper for the most trusted currency in the world? Well, in 1897, Doug's father's father's father's father, Winthrop Murray Crane, went to Washington, D.C. and outbid the competition by less than a penny - offered to make the paper for 38 and nine-tenths cents a pound.
Today, 130 years later, there is no real competition anymore. This is one of the few specialty mills left in the country. What they do here is complicated. There are lots of security features hidden in the paper. Doug takes a dollar bill out of his pocket and points to small colored threads scattered around the paper.
CRANE: There's a red one there and there's another one up over there. They're just everywhere in there and all the denominations have a mixture of red and blue.
KESTENBAUM: A different mixture for each bill or no?
CRANE: I'm not supposed to talk about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KESTENBAUM: It's hard to imagine another company with this kind of expertise, which raises a question. How do we know the government's getting a good price from you, if you're the only game in town?
CRANE: That's an excellent question and, you know, because we are the only game in town, we know that we have to behave in a responsible way.
KESTENBAUM: Also, he says, the government just makes them open their books, does a pretty intense audit every four years when the contract is up for renewal. Even without competition, though, there is a threat to Crane's business. We are using cash less and less often. There are credit cards, companies are setting up ways to pay with cell phones, but Doug says he does not think paper money is going away anytime soon.
CRANE: You know, you look at a bank note, you sit there and you hold it and you know you've got it. You know, if you say, well, how much is on my cell phone? And you got to call up something and you plug in a PIN or you do something and it tells you a bunch of numbers and you've got to think, well, is that really what I had there yesterday?
KESTENBAUM: Yeah. But my entire retirement account is just numbers. Like, I don't get to hold that in my hand ever. I better believe it's real.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CRANE: Well, that's a good point.
KESTENBAUM: I mean, really, do you think, in 50 years, is cash going to be any significant fraction of the transactions in the United States?
CRANE: I'm sure it's going to be a significant fraction of the transactions.
KESTENBAUM: In 50 years?
CRANE: I just - in 50 years. I just couldn't tell you what it's going to be.
KESTENBAUM: One thing in Doug's favor - the U.S. dollar is used a lot overseas. When the financial crisis hit, Crane & Company worked shift after shift making paper for $100 bills. People abroad in a time of crisis wanted to hold cold, hard U.S. cash.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.