Half dollar

'Tis death to counterfeit

9 November 2022

Keeping counterfeiters at bay in the 18th century

In the 18th century, innovations in printing, and designs inspired by the complexity of the natural world, helped keep counterfeiters at bay. 

The Nicholson Collection includes a group of 77 American colonial currency notes dating from the 1770s. Gifted in 1890 by Harry Gilliat, the notes provide an insight into pre-independence America when it was ruled by British Monarch King George III. 

Before the introduction of colonial money, American colonists would use British, Spanish and Dutch currency that had arrived with new immigrants, or through trade. The most common was the Spanish dollar, known as a 'piece of eight' because it was worth eight Spanish reales. Use of multiple currencies was complicated and people had to use conversion tables to calculate relative values.  

Fifteen shillings

Fifteen shillings, New Jersey, 1776, printed by Isaac Colins, Nicholson Collection, NM2021.72

The first paper money appeared in America in 1690, issued by the Province of Massachusetts Bay to pay soldiers. Although an emergency measure, the notes proved to be a successful way to build the economy without the need for large reserves of precious metals. Eventually, the other colonies followed this method, Britain did not support the Colonies issuing their own currency, and this is seen as a contributing factor to the American Revolution.

There were challenges with the introduction of paper notes; the money issued by colonies did not have a uniform value – a pound note from one colony might not be worth a pound in another; some colonies printed far more paper money than they could ever redeem; rural colonists were not familiar with paper money and did not regard it as real money, and because merchants were unfamiliar with paper money, they could easily be fooled by counterfeits. 

Counterfeit paper notes quickly became an issue. While the melting and casting of silver and gold to produce coins required expertise and expensive furnaces and workshops, anyone with a printing press could create notes. To discourage counterfeiters, government printers added greater detail into the designs to make the process of printing complicated and laborious.

Politician and inventor Benjamin Franklin was a printer in Philadelphia during the mid-18th century. In 1737, he printed paper currency that incorporated realistic images of leaves. This nature print had the advantage of unpredictable patterns and lines, making it difficult to copy. This technique was adopted by other printers as an anticounterfeit measure.

Franklin’s nature print had been inspired by engraver Joseph Breintnall, who had developed a technique for accurately reproducing leaves. A print was produced by placing a leaf on a damp cloth, then placed on top of and pressed into soft plaster. Once the plaster had set, it had a negative impression of the leaf. Molten copper was poured over the plaster to make a printing plate. Breintnall used the process to make scientifically accurate images of leaves to send to England where there was an increasing interest in American plant biology. On his nature prints, he would write the caption, ‘Engraven by the Greatest and best Engraver in the Universe’, referring to God, as he believed the images were beyond the abilities of human engravers.

Half dollar

Half dollar, Maryland, 1770, Nicholson Collection, NM2021.3

In 1744, Franklin partnered with David Hall to print notes for the New Jersey and Pennsylvania colonies. Along with a nature print by Franklin, they included the phrase ‘Tis Death to Counterfeit.’ This threatening statement was backed by the law as the penalty for counterfeiting in the 18th century was death. However, there are no death sentences for counterfeiting recorded during this period.

In Maryland, William Green of Annapolis used other anti-counterfeiting methods including using random wavy (indented) borders that matched the original stub book; elaborate engravings; unusual punctuation, and superfluous characters. In the example of the Half Dollar from Maryland, issued on March 1 1770 (NM2021.3), we can see the engraver’s initials ‘TS’ (Thomas Sparrow) at the top, a small ‘a’ inserted between ‘half’ and ‘dollar’, and an accent mark over the ‘a’ in ‘Exchange’. These subtle design features were included to foil counterfeiters.

Counterfeit currency is still a challenge for governments today, and they continue to use design features to make it more difficult for fake money to be produced. Elaborate designs and hidden elements are still used, as well as new technologies such as polymer notes, 3D images, rolling colour effects, and tactile features.

Chris Jones is the Collections Manager at the Chau Chak Wing Museum

This article was first published in issue 28 of Muse Magazine, April 2022. 

Header image: Half Dollar, Maryland, 1770, printed by AC & W Green, engraved by Thomas Sparrow, Nicholson Collection, NM2021.3