The Nature of Printing Money

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Earlier this week, the exhibition Money on Paper opened at Princeton University. Looking at bank notes as an art form, curator of numismatics Alan Stahl puts on display several treasures, including the recently discovered bank note engraving of a grouse by John James Audubon. The 1763 New Jersey shilling seen here (printed by James Parker of Woodbridge, courtesy of Princeton University) is one of the fascinating examples of nature printing in the exhibit. According to the exhibition's website, "the most inventive printer of paper money of the time was Benjamin Franklin, who devised a system of transferring the vein patterns of tree leaves to printing plates to foil counterfeiters. The Princeton exhibition includes a large selection of Franklin's nature-print notes." Reading this prompted me to reach for a new book I recently received from Mark Batty Publishers -- Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing by Roderick Cave (mbp, $85).
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There are several pages devoted to nature printing techniques in colonial America with examples of bank notes. Cave writes, "Franklin adopted various devices such as the use of paper incorporating flecks of mica, or pieces of coloured thread -- methods still sometimes used by securities' printers -- but in the adoption of nature printing he was unique."

Impressions of Nature is a beautiful book, brimming with full-color illustrations. Cave impressively relays the early history of nature printing, its spread through Europe, the work of major printers, and its applications in photography and graphic design. There seems to be something for everyone in this splendid volume.