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Printing blocks tied to colonial currency

The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, reports that three rare 18th-century type-metal blocks on deposit with it have been identified as the instruments used to print colonial currency in Delaware and elsewhere.

Leaf block believed to have been use to print money. Image courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

Leaf block believed to have been use to print money. Image courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

“Furthermore, the blocks were the output of Benjamin Franklin’s printing office and represent a technological innovation—perhaps Franklin’s only real invention of a technical advance in printing—only now fully understood for the first time,” said the LCP press release announcing the identification.

LCP said that among “the most intriguing of all early American graphics are the delicate images of leaves used as a counterfeit deterrent on paper money printed by Franklin and his successors from 1737 to 1785.” Experts, it says, believed that these images were made by pressing a leaf into plaster and making a mold of the impression that could then be used to cast printing blocks from type metal. However, until now, this was only guesswork, as none of the blocks were known to exist.

Of the discovery, LCP said the Delaware Country Institute of Science in Media, Pa., recently found what appeared to be one of the leaf blocks used to print currency in their collection, along with two metal ornament blocks and some pieces of paper money. “They showed them to Jessica Linker, a current Library Company fellow, who suggested that the blocks be shown to Library Company Librarian James Green, the nation’s foremost expert on Benjamin Franklin’s job-printing work,” LCP said.

A Delaware 30-shillings note printed by Franklin and Hall, 1760. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

A Delaware 30-shillings note printed by Franklin and Hall, 1760. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Using high resolution digital photography, and matching the blocks to currency in the collections of Winterthur and the American Antiquarian Society, as well as that from DCIS, “Linker and Green determined that all the blocks were—in fact—cast, making possible some of their more intricate devices, such as variable surface height so that some low-relief areas print as gray—rather than the firm black of the higher relief elements and the white of recessed areas—and cross-hatching scored into the lead after casting.” These techniques, it noted, were meant to deter counterfeiting.

“Given the date of currency printed with the leaf block, issued by the province of Delaware in 1760, this particular block was almost certainly cast not by Franklin but by his successor David Hall,” LCP said. “Nonetheless, these blocks may be the earliest surviving pieces of type metal cast from molds made in America.”

For additional information, visit www.librarycompany.org.

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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