*This article is the second in a three-part series on counterfeiting.
In the world of currency, developing anti-counterfeiting measures have always followed the emergence of counterfeit banknotes and coins, and they have taken on many different forms.
As seen in the previous article in this series, (read: Part 1: A History of Counterfeiting), one of the earliest attempts to deter counterfeiters was blatant threats. When paper money debuted in China during the 13th century, the notes were emblazoned with a slogan reassuring prospective criminals that counterfeiting carried with it the threat of death.
Other strategies to prevent counterfeiting often included creating currency in a very unique way, with very unique tools.
In ancient Rome, for example, craftsmen struck coins, and did not cast them in molds therefore detail to the coins could only be provided by the talented smiths.
In the age of paper money, printers developed special typefaces and type ornaments, sometimes cut by hand, in the hopes that counterfeiters would find it too expensive to reproduce the banknotes.
But soon, with more and more people worldwide having access to a printing press, counterfeiting became not only easier, but also more professional.
By the eighteenth century, particularly in America, anti-counterfeiting measures were on the rise. In 1739, Benjamin Franklin devised a series of banknotes that included realistic images of three blackberry leaves and a willow leaf. The leaves, as historian Eric P. Newman wrote, “not only had exceedingly complex detail but also internal lines that graduated in thickness.”
However, a larger problem permeated the American currency system in its first 100 years. In its infancy, America had about 1600 state banks that designed and printed their own bills. Each bill carried its own design, but the country saw nearly 7000 varieties of bills circulating. In 1862, a national currency was adopted as an attempt to prevent the counterfeiting of these bills that were sometimes unrecognizable even between states.
Some three years later, the United States Secret Service was established with a primary purpose of suppressing wide-spread counterfeiting. Throughout the early 20th century, some security features were added to banknotes, including watermarks, seals, serial numbers, and colored inks.
Anti-counterfeiting technology has been developed more over the past 30 years than in the history of money.
From polymer, security threads, iridescent strips and see-through windows, today’s banknotes are not just used as currency; they are also becoming high-tech anti-counterfeiting devices.
In the final installment of this series, we will look at some of the latest developments in banknote security measures.