Thursday, June 25, 2009

Making Money

There's a memorable moment in the movie Bugsy (not quoted on imdb, so I'm doing it by memory) when one of Bugsy Siegel's associates objects that something Bugsy wants to do will cost too much money. "Money?" Bugsy says off-handedly. "That's just dirty paper. I'll get some more."

That casual attitude toward money eventually prompted Bugsy's associates to rub him out. Still, it was a good turn of phrase, even though most money isn't paper any more, and probably wasn't in the 1940s, when the movie was set.

While in Dallas, I took a drive over to Ft. Worth to visit the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing Western Currency Facility, where paper money is made, to take a tour of the place. I was mildly amazed that members of the public can take tours at all, and even more amazed that the tours are free. The bureau's public outreach seems pretty sophisticated, however. Maybe they're worried about debit cards finally ushering in that cashless society that's been predicted since the 1970s at least, but that didn't come up during the tour.

We should all hope paper money doesn't go away, since its exchange doesn't depend on electronic devises, and is completely anonymous. Besides, pieces of U.S. currency are remarkable works of art, and well as products of manufacturing virtuosity. Visiting the place where the notes are made confirms that notion. The process is mind-boggling in its complexity, including the special paper -- cloth, really -- and the special inks, the intricate plate-making (done at the eastern facility in DC), the three separate kinds of printing used to create the images and lettering on each note, and the drying, cutting, stacking and bundling. Then there's the matter of keeping track of each and every note produced.

Security was tight for us visitors. No surprise there. To begin with, the entire place is surrounded by serious-looking fencing. At the entrance, you pass through something like an airport metal detector, only a curved door closes behind you while a curved door opens up in front. For a moment, you're in a clear tube, presumably being scanned for things you shouldn't have. Then you ride a shuttle bus a short way to the facility, and once there, the entire tour is down a hallway looking down at the factory floor through windows.

We were just tourists. Work at the bureau and you'll probably spend your career in one small part of the factory floor, which is divided into small sections by tall fences. No casually wandering over to other parts of the floor, and few get to see the entire process in detail. Probably there's little incentive to steal, anyway, since I understand that the jobs are exceedingly desirable and high-paid positions.

"See the fence over there, covered so that no one can see inside?" said our tour guide, an affable young woman. In fact, the area was blocked from view from floor to ceiling by green tarp or some other material. No other part of the facility was blocked in quite that way. "That's where they're going to make the new $100 bill. Very few people know what's going on in there."

Security extended in small ways even to the gift shop, where vistors can buy the usual sorts of items, but also some unique to the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, such as uncut notes. Being a frequent postcard consumer, I checked out the selection, but it was meager. No images of the facility of any kind were for sale, though money-themed cards were available. I bought one (using cash) that features every kind of Federal Reserve Note ever made, up to the $10,000 bill, along with the $100,000 gold certificate. That's cheating on the part of the bureau. Nothing over $100 has been made in years, and the Ft. Worth facility is new enough that the larger notes were never made there.

In case you're wondering, I'll save you a visit to Wiki: McKinley's on the $500 note, Cleveland's on the $1000, Madison's on the $5000, and Salmon P. Chase is on the $10,000. As for the $100,000 certificate, previously used only for transactions between Federal Reserve banks, Woodrow Wilson is on it.

Labels: , ,


At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yet with all that effort, they still can't hire a graphic designer who passed fourth grade art, and it remains the ugliest money in the world.



Post a Comment

<< Home