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Alan M. Levitt on American Currency: Three Hundred Years of Color Printing

APHA Gold Certificate $20 polychrome 1905 (obv)

This 1905 $20 Gold Certificate (along with similar $10 and $50 designs) was authorized by Act of Congress in 1882. Reissued with minor modifications in 1906 and 1922, they remained in circulation until 1933.

Historical consultant Alan Levitt presented dozens of remarkable images, some quite beautiful, of printed American currency—colonial, state, federal, Confederate and private banknotes, and various payment certificates—to emphasize the historical importance of the use of color in deterring counterfeiting. The earliest example he shared represented the first known use of color in printed American money: a 1702 Massachusetts Bay Colony bill which featured a red scroll, difficult for the casual forger to reproduce. The most visually striking specimens Levitt discussed were also among the most difficult to duplicate illegally: those that employed Sir William Congreve’s still-mysterious compound printing technique, and early “Greenbacks,” first produced in 1862 to finance the Civil War, which introduced the now-familiar fine intaglio lines and specially formulated green ink.

Gesturing toward modern US anti-counterfeiting practices (security threads, microprinting), Levitt argued that no single technique has been more effective in fighting forgery than multiple-color printing. His concluding words related to an image he presented of a contemporary Bank of England note. Commenting on its complex and attractive multicolor design, he suggested future efforts to secure American money against counterfeiting could involve similar, more varied uses of color.

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