Take out a twenty-dollar bill.
Look at the face side of the money—the one with Andrew Jackson with his big wavy hair. No go up to the upper right hand corner, right beneath the number “20” and the final “S” in United States.
There should be a tiny letter, and if you’re extra lucky, you’ll see a pair of even smaller letters to the left of it: FW.
FW stands for Fort Worth and every buck that’s printed in Texas is printed with those two letters. In fact, the money in your pocket has more chance of carrying the telltale FW than not, because at present, 63% of all American currency is printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, Texas.
I never knew that until now—did you? Before visiting the “Money Factory” in Fort Worth, I thought we Americans got all our paper money from my city (Washington, DC)—and, in fact, we used to—but ever since 1991, the Department of Treasury has been printing lots of dollars in Texas.
Compared to the security at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the TSA looks like a Little League team. There’s no fuss and no exceptions—even I, the digital nomad, had to leave my cell phone in the car. Only with special permission and under the watchful eye of a chaperone, was I able to carry a camera into the hidden world of printing cash.
Watching money become money is like hearing the world’s biggest secret and then wanting to share it with the world. What I noticed first were the massive rolls of paper unwinding onto the printing machines. The heavy cotton paper used for American dollars comes from the Crane Paper Company (just like your wedding invitations). 32 bills are printed per sheet, and there are three different print runs for each side.
It’s quite a process:
1) Offset Printing Three different subtle colors are applied to either side of the paper—the shading and background colored shapes that appears behind the detail. After the offset, the pages are left for 72 hours to allow the ink to dry.
2) Intaglio Printing The offset pages are pressed into the inked grooves of the working plates at 10,000 pounds per square inch, a process that gives American currency its signature feel. (I was amazed by the thick ooze of army-green ink that was automatically wiped across the plates in the printing press.) This is where the portrait, images and the detail of the dollar bills are added, and then once again, the ink is left to dry for 72 hours.
3) Overprinting Finally, the Department of Treasury seal and individual serial numbers are added. In this regard, no two bills are alike.
Quality control is a constant and intense process at the money factory. Electronic eyes scan 8,000 sheets of money per hour, looking for any flaws or inconsistency. I was amazed by the rare throwaway, in which a whole sheet of hundreds was pulled from the pile and crumpled up like any old bad draft.
“That forgotten bit of trash is $3,200! I thought, and as a spectator, it’s hard to watch and NOT think of it all as money—which it is not. Even after successful completion of all three printings, a quality control pass, cutting and bundling into “bricks” of 4,000 notes each, the product is not money.
Only after the cash crosses the threshold of the Federal Reserve vault does it actually magically become real money, and even then, it only enters the world economy when the Federal Reserve wants it to.
Currently, Fort Worth prints $298 billion a year—about one billion dollars per work day. That comes down to 38 million notes per day. If that number is too big to comprehend, I can tell you that I looked into one room where they were printing the next generation of hundred dollar bills (they’re pretty!) lined with stacks of uncut currency. Each stack consists of 10,000 sheets of money, equivalent to $32 million each and there were more stacks than I could count.
As exciting as it was to be surrounded by billions of dollars, it was also slightly depressing to think that most of us will only ever earn and spend a few inches of money. At the same time, I truly gained a new appreciation for the American dollar—not as a bill that represents our economy, but as a patient, well-thought-out work of art.
It takes about 400 hours to engrave a president’s portrait onto a steel plate—a portrait that is engraved backwards by hand in order to print a reverse image. The workmanship of drawing with dots, dashes and lines is so meticulous and refined that fewer than ten people in America are actually qualified to do it.
“If you want to be an engraver, you have to be able to draw,” said Richard Baratz, an engraver with the Bureau who I met at the factory in Fort Worth. Like all engravers, he completed a ten-year apprenticeship in order to be qualified to engrave the designs for American currency.
“Money is art,” he declared, and then pointed to Benjamin Franklin’s backwards face, shining up from the nickel plate of the new hundred dollar bill. “This is portraiture right here, and look at the lettering, all of it is art.”
He’s right—it is art, but too often when traveling abroad, I’m told American money is too green and too boring. Richard disagrees.
“Our money is the most beautiful in the world,” he said and now that I’ve seen how it’s made, I agree wholeheartedly. That American currency is hand-engraved and (basically) letterpressed with incredible small detail makes us unique. When you hold a dollar bill, you’re holding onto a tradition that goes back to Civil War times—1862 to be exact, when the United States began printing paper notes.
And now I will never look at a dollar bill the same way. Instead, I will always search for that tiny FW on the face side and if it’s not there, I’ll know that it was printed in my hometown Washington, DC.
But if it is there—then I’ll know exactly where it’s from: Fort Worth.
Visitors can tour the Fort Worth, Texas Bureau of Printing & Engraving from Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.