show #1212

Peggy follows the paper money trail to Washington, DC. Segment length: 8:39


Insights & Connections



Main activity

Try this


You've heard the expression "Money doesn't grow on trees." So where does it come from?

Got a dollar bill in your pocket? Take a look at it. Notice the intricate artwork, the color of the ink, the texture. Take a minute and think about where and how your dollar bill was made.

Today your U.S. dollar bill, or bank note, is the most recognized and sought-after money in the world. But the United States did not invent paper money. Most notaphilists and numismatists credit the Chinese with the idea. From China, the concept of paper money to replace heavy coins spread to the rest of the world.

Paper notes have circulated in the United States since Colonial days. By 1836, at least 7,000 varieties of paper currency were in circulation, issued by state banks. But in 1862, the United States found itself in need of issuing government paper money to finance the Civil War. To accomplish this, it created the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, DC. The design of the current dollar bill is a process of 65 complicated and distinct steps. It begins with highly skilled engravers who hand-cut portraits, lettering, and ornamentation into soft steel to make the original die masters.

Look at your dollar bill again. Notice that the images are a series of fine lines, dots, and dashes. This process of engraving is the first step of intaglio printing. Next, the images of the die master are transferred to a printing plate. Printing plates are then chromium-coated and readied for the high-speed presses.

` Sheets of paper made of a special cotton-linen blend speed through the presses under 14 tons of pressure per square inch. This pressure forces the paper into the recessed lines of the plate where it picks up the ink. First the backs of the bills are printed with green ink, and then the faces are printed with black ink. Serial numbers and the Treasury and the Federal Reserve District seals and numbers are overprinted onto the notes.

The sheets are cut into smaller units, packaged into bricks, and distributed to the Federal Reserve Bank Districts. They, in turn, distribute them to individual banks. Eventually, the dollar bills wind up in our pockets. Right where you found yours!


bank notes paper money issued by a bank

bricks 40 units of 100 bank notes packaged together

Bureau of Engraving and Printing a government office where U.S. paper money is made. It has two locations--Washington, DC, and Fort Worth, Texas.

die master metal sheet on which the original design of the bank note is engraved. Used to make the printing plates.

Federal Reserve System the U.S. monetary organization, created in 1913, that issues and regulates U.S. currency

intaglio printing lined-engraved, recess printing process

notaphilists collectors of paper money

numismatists collectors of paper money, coins, tokens, and related objects

overprint official printing completed on a bank note after the initial printing has taken place

printing plate copies of the original engraved die master. These plates are made of plastic.


Additional sources of information

Department of the Treasury 
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
14th & C Street
Washington, DC  20228
(202) 874-3186
U.S. Mint 
633 Third St. NW, 7th floor
Washington, DC  20226
(202) 874-5924
American Numismatic Assn. 
Education Department
818 N. Cascade Ave.
Colorado Springs, CO  80903 (719) 632-2646
Public Information Office
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis 
PO Box 442
St. Louis, MO 63166-0442
(314) 444-8421
(cost of "The Money Tree" package is $25)

Community resources


If you could design your own paper money, what would it look like? What images and symbols would you incorporate into your design? What security features would you provide to prevent counterfeiting? What paper would you use? Give this project a try and see how inventive you can be.


  1. Discuss the distinguishing features and symbols of U.S. bank notes and bank notes from other countries. Design your own bank note on paper before engraving your plastic.
  2. Cut the plastic to the size of your bank note. Using pieces of wire or a straightened pin, engrave your sheet. This approach roughly simulates the intaglio printing process used at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
  3. Next, coat the surface of the sheet with ink, making sure that the engraved lines are filled. Wipe the ink off the surface with the cheesecloth without wiping the filled engraved lines.
  4. When you are ready, lay damp paper over the sheet and roll the rubber roller over the paper to pick up the images. The most effective method is to rub a wood burnisher over the area where the design is located. Do not use a wooden roller. Cut your printed "bank notes."
  5. Repeat the process for the backside of the "bank note."

Extend the activity. Have committees design denominations of bank notes for class currency. Discuss the worth of each set of bills. Use the currency for payment of "goods and services" in the class to simulate the role of money in society.


  1. What are common symbols and features of paper money?

  2. What must a society do to assure its paper money has value?

  3. What are the pros and cons of becoming a "cashless" society?


Invite a local notaphilist or numismatist to show his or her collection to your class. Discuss the process of collecting money and determining the quality of individual pieces. Start a class penny collection to incorporate some of the concepts discussed.


How does U.S. paper money compare to the paper money of other countries? Start a class collection. Invite your classmates to share money from around the world that they may have at home. Compare and contrast the sizes, designs, counterfeiting prevention techniques, and qualities of the material. Make enlarged copies of this paper money and put them on display.


Research the symbolism of "The Great Seal of the United States" as displayed on the back of the one-dollar bill. What is the meaning of "E Pluribus Unum"? What is the eagle holding and how many stars are above its head? What is the date in Roman numerals at the base of the pyramid, and what does the eye signify at its top?


Plan an imaginary trip to a foreign country. Look at the "foreign exchange" chart in the business section of the local newspaper. How much money should you bring along in U.S. dollars? Convert that amount of money into the currency of the country you have chosen to visit.

Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.