Liberty Street Economics

« | Main | »

October 12, 2012

Historical Echoes: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Amy Farber

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.

About the Blog

Liberty Street Economics features insight and analysis from New York Fed economists working at the intersection of research and policy. Launched in 2011, the blog takes its name from the Bank’s headquarters at 33 Liberty Street in Manhattan’s Financial District.

The editors are Michael Fleming, Andrew Haughwout, Thomas Klitgaard, and Asani Sarkar, all economists in the Bank’s Research Group.

Liberty Street Economics does not publish new posts during the blackout periods surrounding Federal Open Market Committee meetings.

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the New York Fed or the Federal Reserve System.

Economic Research Tracker

Image of NYFED Economic Research Tracker Icon Liberty Street Economics is available on the iPhone® and iPad® and can be customized by economic research topic or economist.

Economic Inequality

image of inequality icons for the Economic Inequality: A Research Series

This ongoing Liberty Street Economics series analyzes disparities in economic and policy outcomes by race, gender, age, region, income, and other factors.

Most Read this Year

Comment Guidelines


We encourage your comments and queries on our posts and will publish them (below the post) subject to the following guidelines:

Please be brief: Comments are limited to 1,500 characters.

Please be aware: Comments submitted shortly before or during the FOMC blackout may not be published until after the blackout.

Please be relevant: Comments are moderated and will not appear until they have been reviewed to ensure that they are substantive and clearly related to the topic of the post.

Please be respectful: We reserve the right not to post any comment, and will not post comments that are abusive, harassing, obscene, or commercial in nature. No notice will be given regarding whether a submission will or will
not be posted.‎

Comments with links: Please do not include any links in your comment, even if you feel the links will contribute to the discussion. Comments with links will not be posted.

Send Us Feedback

Disclosure Policy

The LSE editors ask authors submitting a post to the blog to confirm that they have no conflicts of interest as defined by the American Economic Association in its Disclosure Policy. If an author has sources of financial support or other interests that could be perceived as influencing the research presented in the post, we disclose that fact in a statement prepared by the author and appended to the author information at the end of the post. If the author has no such interests to disclose, no statement is provided. Note, however, that we do indicate in all cases if a data vendor or other party has a right to review a post.