Roy Exum: Benjamin Makes A Debut

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The nation’s government may well be in a partial shutdown but that didn’t keep the newest “Benjamins” – what $100 bills bearing the likeness of Benjamin Franklin have been called in modern times -- from coming out of hiding on Tuesday. Easily the most sophisticated piece of currency ever produced, the first of 3.5 billion notes went into circulation yesterday as the Federal Reserve armored trucks began delivering the redesigned bills to banks and other financial institutions.

The new $100 bills have a 3-D security ribbon intricately woven into each of them and the image of a small liberty bell, inside an inkwell, that changes colors when held up to the light. As a Fed spokesperson said yesterday, “They are easier to authenticate and harder to replicate,” which is government-speak for “very hard to counterfeit.”

In 2003 the United States added color to its smaller bills but the $100 bill is the monetary superstar. An early try in 2010 left creases in the printed bills so more safeguards were added and the “2013 series” of the 100s, which is printed in Washington and Forth Worth, Texas, is a fascinating piece of money.

Believe it or not, three out of every four new $100 bills leave the United States almost immediately and never come back home. Instead they are the currency-of-choice on the international black market and readily traded in every country in the world. Experts believe the new 100 and 500 Euro notes may replace the $100 bill but the revolutionary 3-D security ribbon – a bright blue ribbon made up of hundreds of thousands of “micro-lenses” in each new $100 bill – gives the United States money even more appeal.

The new $100 bills will be available in local banks within a matter of days but – never fear -- the last design, in circulation since 1996 is still legal tender, as is any American currency. The $100 bill is the largest note available to the public after higher-denomination bills were taken out of circulation in 1996. Oh, a $500 bill, a $1,000 bill, a $5,000 bill and a $10,000 bill – if you have hoarded any -- are still good but the minute they are circulated back into the Federal Reserve the old bills are immediately retired.

Right now there are about $900 billion of $100 bills in circulation. As the bills become tattered and frayed, they will be replaced by the newer design but experts tell us the normal life span for a $100 bill is approximately 15 years (a $10 bill only lasts 4.2 years). U.S. bills, made by the Crane & Co. paper company, are designed to endure being folded – get this – up to 8,000 times before they break.

As a matter of fact, it would take 20.4 pounds of Benjamins to make up a stack of $1 million and when the bills arrive at banks they are in stacks – you guessed it -- of 100, each pile worth $10,000 with a yellow band wrapper.

On the back of the new bill are the words, “In God We Trust” (contrary to rumor) and there is a large “100” dominating the right side to help the visually-impaired.  A microscopic look would reveal red and blue fibers in the paper, which is made of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen. To the left of Independence Hall on the back of the bill, a watermark of Franklin’s face will appear in the light and there is microprinting on the back of the bill as well – you’ll need a magnifying glass to find “United States of America,” “USA 100,” “One Hundred USA” and “100s.”

The inkwell on the front has a quill watermark that goes with it, a salute to the Franklin and the nation’s Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence, and in the lower right on the front of the bill is a larger 100 than in the other three corners of the note that turns from green to copper when you tilt the bill. Then there is raised printing – you can feel Franklin’s shoulder, for example.

How much did the bill cost? There is about a 60 percent increase over the 7.8 cents it cost to manufacture our last $100 bill. Each new one costs 12.5 cents to make but the counterfeit measures are important. Counterfeit bills are hard to trace -- remember, most are being held overseas – and the foreign demand for the new style currency is expected to be brisk.

All in all, from the $1 bill to the $2, $5, $10, $20, and $50, there are 33 billion paper notes from the United States in circulation today. One-dollar bills (“Washingtons,”) are the most popular with 10.3 billion in use but “Benjamins” are solidly in second place and the distinctive new measures are expected to increase demand.

One more thing: traces of cocaine can be found on 80 percent of $100 bills circulated in the United States. Obviously not that many C-notes are used to snort drugs but the experts say when the bills are often stacked together, a slight residue can soon be found on four out of five.

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