Leon Worden




Ulysses S. Grant to get a facelift

Leon Worden · July 23, 1997

Series 1996 $100Unless you are paid the salary of a newspaper columnist, there's a good chance you've handled a few of those new-fangled $100 bills by now. A little over a year ago, the Treasury and Federal Reserve increased Ben Franklin's bust size -- or should I say his portrait -- and added several new features to the C-note.

It caused a ruckus in Russia, where American officials had to do a lot of talking to convince unsophisticated ex-Soviet bankers that the dollar wasn't being debased. Most countries don't change their currency on a whim, after all. Usually it's because they're experiencing hyperinflation and are cycling out their old money, as Mexico recently did. Russian bankers initially said they would honor only the new $100 bills -- which would have wiped out the life savings of countless Russians who had stashed away older American greenbacks for a rainy day.

Leave it to those guys at Treasury. They're about to do it again.

Actually there was good cause to change the $100. It wasn't just because some clerk in Engraving and Printing got bored with the old currency that hadn't changed in decades. Rather, our $100s and $20s were easily counterfeited the world over, and new technologies had been developed to lessen the problem.

Franklin's portrait was enlarged and moved off-center to make room for a watermark -- a motif inside the paper, visible when held to the light. The number "100" in the lower right-hand corner was printed in color-shifting ink. And the other features introduced in 1990 -- micro-printing and a polymer security thread up the left side -- were carried over to the new 1996 model. All these are difficult and expensive to counterfeit.

In fact, last year the U.S. Secret Service (which keeps track of such things) identified counterfeit Series 1996 C-notes only one-eighteenth as often as older series $100s, even though by year's end the new notes accounted for one-third of all $100s in circulation.

This fall the $50 bill will get the same treatment, to be followed at date uncertain by the $20, $10, $5 and possibly the $1 bill, in that order. Which doesn't make much sense, since $20s are counterfeited far more often than any other denomination. But they didn't ask me. They say they'll get around to the $20 sometime next year.

Series 1996 $50Like Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant's portrait on the $50 will be enlarged and moved left to accommodate a watermark. They'll use color-shifting ink and do one more thing not done on the $100: The number "50" in the lower right-hand corner of the back of the note will be twice its current size, to make it more distinguishable to the 10 million Americans with mild forms of visual impairment.

The notes will be dated 1996 (they don't change the date on notes every year like they do on coins), and all the 1990 security features will stay.

As with $100s, older-model $50s will still be legal tender. I hope they tell the Russians.

If you handle a lot of cash, here's a quick run-down of the anti-counterfeiting features currently used on all 1990-or-later notes except the $1:

  • Thin red and blue fibers that can be picked out with a razor blade.

  • A green Treasury seal that feels bumpy (this is subtle).

  • A polymer strip to the left of the portrait with "USA" and the denomination printed inside it, visible when held to the light.

  • The words "United States of America" around the oval border of the portrait, visible under a magnifying glass.

The 1996 $100s and (future) $50s also include:

  • Huge portraits on the left and watermarks on the far right that are visible when held to the light.

  • The words "United States of America" in Franklin's and Grant's lapel, visible under a magnifying glass.

  • The number "100" or "50" in the lower-right front corner that changes color at different angles.

  • Concentric circles in the background of the portrait and the building on the back.

Eventually all notes will include the enlarged denomination in the back, lower-right corner. If you suspect a note is counterfeit, call the Secret Service at its not-so-secret number, (213) 894-4830. Also, special counterfeit-detecting pens are available at most stationers.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.


©1997 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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