I’ll be honest, I was an avid coin collector as a kid, but it was never about the art. The intricacy of the designs on coins or the colors of ink used on bills are often an afterthought.
For me collecting was about rarity. I wanted to be the only person in town with a 1944 steel wheat penny, but the texture of those wheat fronds never much caught my eye. As an adult, I collect bills and coins from every country I visit, mostly for the memories—and the unspoken hope that I’ll return someday with some spare change to get me started on my next adventure.
Mark Tomasko also collects money, but when he looks at a bill his interest is driven by artistry, technique, and historical context. Tomasko is a writer and researcher with a specific interest in bank note engraving. He is also the author of The Feel of Steel: The Art and History of Bank-Note Engraving in the United States. On July 7, as part of the 2014 Rare Book School Summer Lecture Series at UVA, Tomasko will give a talk on the topic.
It’s perhaps simplest to think of a bank note as any form of paper money. However, the engraving process for bank notes has also been used for other items in need of security, such as stock and bond certificates and stamps. Paper securities are rarely used today, though, and U.S. stamps are generally no longer engraved, which really just leaves bank notes as the primary use for this type of engraving.
Tomasko’s interest in bank note engraving was originally piqued by a simple gift. “I collected coins when I was young and then, when I got a little older, I became interested in paper currency, and later my grandmother gave me some shares in the Marmon Motor Car Company, which opened my eyes to the largest format for bank note engraving, stocks and bonds,” he said. Influenced by this, Tomasko’s work concentrates on documenting the individual artists and companies as well as the processes involved.
These processes are primarily intaglio printing and the engraving needed for it. Intaglio printing refers to the technique in which an image is carved into a surface to be printed. This is undertaken with a steel tool, called a burin, used to carve into a steel plate through a process called etching. The surface is covered with and subsequently wiped of ink. A sheet of damp paper is then put on the plate and fed through high-pressure rollers to press the paper against the carved areas, picking up the ink, and thereby creating a raised print. The result is a highly tactile piece of art.
According to Tomasko, “Before the Civil War, almost every bank could issue its own notes, so there was a great variety.” Counterfeiting was a large concern, as it remains today, and engraving and intaglio printing processes were an attempt to combat this and ensure authenticity of value. At that time, close to 2,000 state banks across the country had issued almost 7,000 separate types of bills, making it nearly impossible to detect fakes.
In the recent past, there’s been a decline in the art of engraving. “America was the leader in this art until the mid-20th century,” said Tomasko, and the American Bank Note Company provided bank notes to countries around the world. Technological advancements and global politics have taken a toll.
Digital design allows for currency that’s faster and cheaper to produce, more detailed and easier to differentiate between denominations, and more effectively able to incorporate features such as 3-D security ribbons, color-shifting inks, and embedded security thread. And all of this leads to paper money that is difficult, but not impossible, to counterfeit.
The traditional skills of an engraver are difficult to master, and take a significant amount of time to create by hand. Tomasko believes that “intaglio will survive on bank notes, but the hand work of picture engraving is the challenge.” The craft has always been taught through apprenticeships, which are time-intensive and rigorous.
Despite the ubiquity of coin collecting as a hobby, bank notes don’t have the same accessibility. Though the term numismatics is frequently used to refer to the study and collection of coins, it applies to all currency, including bank notes. However, even within numismatic groups, bank notes often get short-changed.
It’s a simple endeavor to find an upcoming coin show (the 2014 Charlottesville Coin Show will take place on August 23 at the Elks Lodge) or browse online slideshows of historic coins. It can be difficult, though, to find similar resources for bank notes.
The National Numismatic Collection is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is the world’s largest collection of currency, with more then 1.1 million pieces of paper currency. However, it’s rare that a significant portion of this collection is on public display. The Museum of American Finance in Manhattan is a better bet, with a viewable collection of bank notes and other artifacts related to money and banking in the United States.
Many bank notes are visually compelling, with a wide assortment of colors and artistry involved. Tomasko’s own collection is extensive and diverse, but aesthetic appeal isn’t always the attraction. “Many people usually find it interesting because it’s related to money,” Tomasko said.
Mark Tomasko’s Rare Book School talk begins at 5:30pm in the auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library on July 7.
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