Dollar bill  © Corbis

News8/31/2007 12:01 AM ET

The hard, fast life of a greenback

You know money doesn't grow on trees, but where does it come from? Spend a little time finding out. I'll even tell you which denominations generally last longest.


Call me Bill. Dollar Bill. This is my story.

Chances are you take me for granted, as much time as we spend together. Moola, bucks, greenbacks -- you make it, you spend it, right? I understand. No hard feelings.

But as the song says, you don't know me. Not really.

Here's an example. I have a face, just like you. Can you tell me, without peeking, whose face is on the $10 bill? The $20 bill? The $50 bill? It's only been in recent years that old Ben Franklin became famous, thanks to the street slang "Benjamins" for $100 notes. And he isn't even a dead president. Answers are below, by the way.

Where do I come from? What is my life expectancy? Who determines when I retire? And how might your office desk turn out to be my final resting place?

I'm Bill. This is my life story. This is your money talking.

Birth of a bill

I was born in the Washington, D.C., facility of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or BEP, a branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. A second BEP facility opened in 1991 in Fort Worth, Texas (bills produced there are designated by the initials "FW" on their face side).

You think of me as paper money, but cloth money would be more accurate. I'm composed of a special blend of 75% cotton and 25% linen with blue and red synthetic fibers -- no wood pulp at all. Crane, a private printer in Dalton, Mass., has produced my special paper for more than a century. An embedded metallic security strip, introduced in 1990, reveals the paper's ultimate denomination.

It takes numerous steps, at least three separate press runs and a highly proprietary blend of Old World and cutting-edge technology to produce me. If it didn't, counterfeiting would be a growing industry, right? In fact, the more colorful "next generation" of $10 (Hamilton), $20 (Jackson) and $50 (Grant) bills are packed with new security features, including microprinting, portrait watermarks, a security thread that glows under ultraviolet light and special ink that changes color when I'm tilted.

Although there are no plans to upgrade $1 and $2 notes, the old fiver is scheduled for a makeover in early 2008, with the Benjamins to follow.

Here's how I come into existence. First, a sheet of paper the size of 32 bills is placed in a Simultan offset press, where my subtle background colors are printed. Then I'm fed through two high-speed rotary Intaglio printing presses; one prints my green back, the other the black face engraving. "New gen" denominations make a return trip through an offset press where subtle background colors are added.

Then it's inspection time. Using computer technology, a machine called the Upgraded Offline Currency Inspection System uses a special camera to actually look through me to make sure my thread and portrait watermarks are positioned correctly. It then takes a digital picture of my face and back, which it compares with a master image. If I pass, I move on. Any smears, spots or skips and it's off to the shredder.

My birth sheet then moves on to Currency Overprinting Processing Equipment and Packaging, or COPE-PAK. There, a letterpress applies my two serial numbers, the black Federal Reserve seal, the Treasury seal and Federal Reserve ID numbers. It is here that I'm finally cut free from the sheet into a new bill, stacked and strapped with 3,999 "brothers" of the same denomination and shrink-wrapped into a brick.

A robotic "palletizer" then organizes my brick into the proper numbering sequence with three others and shrink-wraps all four bricks together into a "cash-pack." Forty cash-packs to a pallet, and we are now ready to be shipped out to a Federal Reserve deposit vault for future distribution.

Continued: Short life expectancy

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