Historical Echoes: It’s Not Easy Being Green
COLOURlovers is a website for people obsessed with color and design. In 2007, a contributing blogger was inspired to write about how the color palette of U.S. money was undergoing a momentous change. He explains in “The New Colors of U.S. Money” the redesign of the $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills, offering images and careful descriptions of the coloring. He briefly observes why the currency is “safer, smarter, and more secure.”
The blogger, Darius A. Monsef IV, finds “no definite reason” for why U.S. paper money was green in the first place, but he’s able to answer why it remained green:
“The first general circulation of paper money by the federal government occurred in 1861. Pressed to finance the Civil War, Congress authorized the U.S. Treasury to issue non-interest-bearing Demand Notes. These notes acquired the nickname ‘greenback’ because of their color.”
When the small currency notes in use today were first introduced in 1929, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) continued using green ink. There were three reasons for this decision. First, pigment of that color was readily available in large quantity. Second, the color was high in its resistance to chemical and physical changes. Finally, the public psychologically identified the color green with the strong and stable credit of the Government.”
We sought more information on why greenbacks were first made green, finding explanation in the BEP’s publication Currency Notes (page 12, scroll down):
“It is believed that the green ink was meant as a deterrent to counterfeiters who would have used photography as a means of reproduction. The early camera saw everything in shades of black and white and, as a result, features printed in color lost their individuality when reproduced photographically.”
A more detailed explanation of how green ink differed from other ink colors in its value as a counterfeit deterrent can also be found on the BEP’s website (scroll down to “Why is green ink used to print U.S. currency?”). Unlike inks in other colors, green ink couldn’t be removed from the note without disturbing the black ink (the removal of the colored ink being an essential step in the counterfeit process).
A fine image of an 1862 greenback can be seen on a Civil War-related site.
Monsef took up the subject of the redesign again in another post, “11 Great Color Legends.” That piece provides some additional information about the U.S. color changes (and it echoes a 2004 brochure by the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to inform America’s youth about the new currency, “The New Color of Money. Safer. Smarter. More Secure.”). Monsef writes:
"The most noticeable difference in the new designs is the introduction of subtle background colors, which makes it more burdensome for potential counterfeiters because it adds complexity to the note. The addition of color also makes it easier to distinguish between denominations because different background colors are used for each denomination.”
Scroll down in “The New Colors of U.S. Money” post and you’ll see that one commenter is still inspired enough by the original varying shades of green in U.S. currency to offer his own color palette, “Color of Money.” Other commenters provide images of what they consider beautiful money, which moved COLOURlovers editor-in-chief to update readers with a post called “The World’s Most Colorful Currencies, Part 2.” (Such a refreshing and atypical set of comments.)
It is interesting that counterfeit deterrence was the reason for green money in the beginning of the nation’s official printing of currency and the reason for the color change in the twenty-first century.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Amy Farber is a research librarian in the New York Fed's Research and Statistics Group.