Episode 371: Where Dollar Bills Come From : Planet Money Every dollar bill in the world comes from the same paper mill in Massachusetts. Today on the show, we get a front-row seat to the dollar-making process. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 371: Where Dollar Bills Come From

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Episode 371: Where Dollar Bills Come From

Episode 371: Where Dollar Bills Come From

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Just a quick note - today's show is a rerun. There is a new update at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Here, take out a dollar bill. I'll actually do it. Here. All right. And look at it, but try not to look at it as money. Try not to look at it as this special thing that you can exchange for whatever you want. Try to see past that and see it for what it actually is, right? It's a piece of paper. Somebody makes this paper.

If you think about it, if it's your job to make the paper for the U.S. dollar, that's kind of a funny job because every time you'd go out in the world you'd see people using this thing that you made, passing these pieces of paper back-and-forth and probably never thinking about where they came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KESTENBAUM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein.

KESTENBAUM: Today we visit the place that makes the paper for every single dollar bill in the world. It's a small paper mill in Massachusetts that's been doing this for 130 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KESTENBAUM: So I visited this mill that makes the paper for dollar bills last year. It's tucked into a valley by a river in Dalton, Mass. It's actually very, very pretty. When I got there, I met this man named Doug Crane. And he handed me the most solid, substantial business card that I had ever seen. Frankly, it looked more like a wedding invitation.

DOUGLAS CRANE: It is important that you can cut a steak with your business card, I think (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: The card reads Douglas A. Crane, vice president of Crane & Co.

KESTENBAUM: Doug said he'd show me where our money comes, and he leads me into this old, weathered factory building. It feels a little bit abandoned. We go through a door, up some stairs. And he points above us to this giant metal medieval-looking sphere. It looks kind of like the Death Star from "Star Wars," just a little bit smaller.

CRANE: It's pretty crazy looking. It's about 15 feet in diameter. And it will hold, you know, several thousand pounds of fiber at a time.

KESTENBAUM: That's the raw material for dollar bills in there.

CRANE: That's right. So that's where it all starts.

KESTENBAUM: It turns out no trees are killed in the making of dollar bills. What is in that big ball is linen. A dollar bill is 75% cotton, 25% linen. It's more like a T-shirt or something. And on the floor next to us are these huge mounds of damp linen fiber that's already been cooked. It is the most unremarkable stuff. It's kind of gray, and it smells a bit like wet leaves.

KESTENBAUM: Linen and cotton 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. And currency paper can last like 5,000 folds. Normal paper that you'd stick in a copy machine - that, he says, will break after about a hundred.

So you spend a lot of time trying to make these dollar bills really tough. 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 or it's like thrown in some tip jar or something like that?

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, that's, you know, that's up to them. I think it's fantastic.

KESTENBAUM: Have you seen a bill that particularly impressed you that it, like, held up so long or that it seems so - like it'd been through a lot in particular?

CRANE: Oh, yeah. You know, we had an example of one bank note that ended up in an eagle's nest - that had been in an eagle's nest, I think, for quite some time. And it was just, you know, the thing looked to be in pretty good shape - a little weathered, I would say. But there it was.

KESTENBAUM: Jacob, if you asked how this little mill ended up making the paper for the most trusted currency in the world, it is a wild story. Doug's father was a paper maker, and his father's father and his father's father's father and his father's father's father's...

GOLDSTEIN: All right. How long are you going to go? I'm back. I'm here to interrupt you.

KESTENBAUM: The story starts in 1879. And this story is lore in Doug's family. I love it because it demonstrates the power of competition. So Doug takes me to this little museum they have at the mill. It's in this other old building, and it has some historical documents in it. And the whole story is laid out there.

In 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes is president. And the paper for the U.S. currency at the time is not being made by the Crane family. It is being made by another mill in Philadelphia, J.M. Wilcox & Co. The U.S. government is buying the paper from them for 75 cents a pound. And 75 cents a pound seemed expensive to the U.S. Treasury secretary at the time.

Wilcox & Co. said, OK, well, you know, we can do it for a little less. Instead of 75 cents, we can do 70 cents a pound. And the Treasury secretary thinks about it and decides, you know what? We're going to open up the contract and let people bid on it. We're going to see if someone can give us an even better price.

GOLDSTEIN: The market - I love it.

KESTENBAUM: Lo and behold, Wilcox comes in even lower, substantially lower at 61 and 4/10 cents. And, Jacob, here I have a copy of a handwritten letter they have in the museum describing what happened.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a little hard to...

KESTENBAUM: It's like handwritten.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. It's handwritten, and it's very fuzzy. But clearly there are more bids coming in. And apparently people are bidding even lower. One Winthrop Murray Crane bids 40 cents. Someone else bids even lower at 39 and 3/4 cents per pound.

KESTENBAUM: The bidding is this long, ongoing process that lasts for days. And finally, in literally the last minutes, there is one last lowest bid. Winthrop Murray Crane again this time for a smidge less, 38 and 9/10 cents a pound, which wins it.

GOLDSTEIN: The winning bid, I should note, wins by less than a penny a pound.

KESTENBAUM: It is sort of fun to imagine this America that was just so different. The story goes that on the last day, the competitors tried to keep Winthrop Murray Crane in his room - in his hotel room - to make sure he didn't go out and put in an even lower final bid. They threw him a going away party. But he snuck out and ran down to the Treasury building just before the deadline.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a delightful story. It seems like a myth, I have to say.

KESTENBAUM: It seems to be true. That's actually the tame version. Here's Peter Hopkins. He's a historian who runs that little museum at the mill.

PETER HOPKINS: There are other versions out there that tell us that his competitors locked him in his room. And he being a tall, skinny New Englander, climbed up through the transom and then sprinted down to the Treasury building.

KESTENBAUM: Transom is the little part over the door, the windows.

HOPKINS: Exactly.

KESTENBAUM: Winning the contract is one thing, keeping it is another. Currency paper has to be two things, right? It has to be durable - OK, they've done that. But there's this other thing which is arguably the most important quality you want in currency which is that it has to be hard to counterfeit. If it turned out that half of the hundred dollar bills out there had been printed on someone's office copy machine, you know, no one would trust the U.S. dollar.

And while you might think that the security features are in the ink and the printing, it turns out that a lot of the security is at Doug's end, in the paper itself. For one, the paper just feels special. Remember, it's made of cotton and linen. And then there are all these little hidden security features. Like there's this little plastic security strip that the government provides that gets embedded in the bill. In the $20 bill, for instance, if you look, you can make out these very tiny words - 20 and USA on it, on the strip itself.

And there's subtler stuff. Doug took a bill out of his pocket and pointed to these little colored threads that are scattered around in the bill.

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: Different mixture for each bill or no?

CRANE: I'm not supposed to talk about that.

KESTENBAUM: This happens several times in our conversation, like when he shows me a blank sheet of currency paper that's destined to be $20 bills.

CRANE: So this is a sheet - is a full-size sheet.

KESTENBAUM: Can I take this home with me?

CRANE: Definitely not (laughter). Definitely not. This is actually, you know, even though it's here at our mill and we have made this, that by law, this is really, you know, the property of the U.S. government. And if you were to possess this sheet of paper outside this environment, you could be arrested and charged with a fairly serious crime.

KESTENBAUM: When a shipment of paper is ready to be sent to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, it gets picked up by two guys in an 18-wheeler. The truck looks like any other truck on the highway, but it's secretly armored. We actually ran into two of the drivers. One of the guys said, yeah, it's a little weird, you know, when they pull into a rest stop and people notice that they're wearing guns. People say, what are you hauling? He says he always tells them it's Halloween candy.

Now, Doug says no one has ever stolen any paper, but there have been some very impressive counterfeits that surface occasionally. You may have heard of these counterfeits called super notes. One day Doug got a call from the Secret Service asking him to come check one out to see what he thought of it.

CRANE: This was down in Washington. I was at the Secret Service at the counterfeit lab there and was shown this note.

KESTENBAUM: When you looked at it, were you like, that's a pretty impressive fake?

CRANE: Yeah, I did. I looked at it, and I thought, boy, someone has really stayed up a lot of nights putting a lot of effort into this.

KESTENBAUM: Was it a fake hundred?

CRANE: It was a fake hundred, yeah.

KESTENBAUM: Jacob, it's unclear who is making these. The U.S. government has said it might be North Korea. But the counterfeit rate, in general, it is very low. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago published this estimate that something like 1 in 10,000 U.S. bills in circulation are fakes. That's like .01%.

GOLDSTEIN: One of the things that's interesting to me - to think about you at this little mill in Massachusetts, I mean, we can think of them as just another U.S. government contractor. But really, the U.S. government here is sort of a middleman because the final sort of customer for Crane paper is us, is basically every person on the globe who wants to hold a U.S. dollar bill. So really, Crane, at this little mill, they have to be able to crank out enough paper for every person in the world who wants dollar bills.

KESTENBAUM: And sometimes they have to do it really quickly. Doug told me this amazing story that when the financial crisis hit, the government called and said, we need paper for hundred-dollar bills - more hundreds. There was all of a sudden a big increase in demand for hundred-dollar bills in the middle of the financial crisis.

CRANE: We ran seven days a week for weeks on end making hundreds. Even today, a large percentage of production is hundred-dollar notes just to continue to meet this ongoing demand overseas.

KESTENBAUM: Turns out there are more hundred-dollar bills in circulation than $20 bills, more hundreds than 20s. I mean, you see $20 bills every single day. I have a few in my wallet. When was the last time you saw a hundred?

CRANE: It's shocking to us to think of this, of course, because we don't see them.

KESTENBAUM: Where are they?

CRANE: Overseas people seek out hundreds. And, you know, they'll - I guess one term is mattress money. It's a safe haven for them.

KESTENBAUM: Where do they put them?

CRANE: I couldn't tell you. I mean, it just - it goes out there. I'm not sure anyone knows.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, David. I'm sold that Doug Crane is doing a good job making these bills and providing the world with all the U.S. currency it wants. But there's this one sort of big-picture question that I still have which is, you know, when we go back - the story for how Crane got the contract in the first place a hundred years ago was a story about the benefit of competition and how opening this up saved the U.S. government so much money. And now from what you're saying, Crane has this long-running monopoly.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah. This is not a secret. It is something people have thought about. The Government Accountability Office published a report in 1998. The title was "Meaningful Competition Unlikely Under Current Conditions." Doug says that's a fair assessment. I mean, a lot of specialty paper mills have gone out of business. His is one of the few that are left. And the paper they make, it is not ordinary paper. It has all these security features in it. So at this point, they are the only real option, which does raise this 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: And also, the government just makes them open their books, does a pretty intense audit every four years when the contract is up for renewal.

CRANE: We have full disclosure of what all of the production costs are. It's how the government purchases from a sole source.

GOLDSTEIN: David, you and I were talking about this a while ago, trying to figure out how to evaluate this kind of thing. And it does seem like you could look at what another country pays for its paper as maybe some kind of comparison.

KESTENBAUM: Yeah. So I looked into that a bit. I tried to compare with Canada. As far as I can tell, the U.S. dollar is cheaper to make than the Canadian dollar. So I don't know. Maybe we're getting a really good price. I asked Doug Crane, how much profit are you making selling currency paper to the U.S. government? He said, you know, I can't tell you. It's proprietary.

So I put in a request with the U.S. government to see if they could give us some measure of the profit Crane is making. And, Jacob, just before we walked in here, I got a phone call saying, sorry, you know, that's - it's proprietary. We can't release it. You can contest that. I don't know. Maybe we'll contest it.

GOLDSTEIN: Contest it.

KESTENBAUM: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

KESTENBAUM: Hey. It's David again. Just wanted to let you know that after this podcast posted the first time, we did end up contesting that. NPR's legal department - if I remember it right, we had a young lawyer who was an intern - took this project on and wrote a 13-page appeal, citing an impressive array of previous instances where similar information had been released.

But here's the final response we got. This is from the Treasury Department's inspector general. Quote, "after careful review and consideration, I am denying your appeal and affirming the initial denial." We'll post the appeal and the response online. You can read it and see what you think.

GOLDSTEIN: Doug Crane retired from Crane Currency in 2013. And then in 2018, Crane Currency was bought by another company. Confusingly, this other company was also called Crane - Crane Co - but was totally unrelated to Crane Currency.

Do you want us to do a show about how some other thing is made? Email us at planetmoney@npr.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - @planetmoney. This episode originally ran back in 2012. Today's rerun was produced by Aviva DeKornfeld. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. And our editor is Bryant Urstadt.

KESTENBAUM: I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm Jacob Goldstein. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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