Planet Money
11:24 am
Wed May 23, 2012

Where Dollars Are Born

Originally published on Fri May 25, 2012 6:05 am

DALTON, Mass. – If you were driving through this small town along the Housatonic River in the Berkshires, here's something you might not think about: All the bills in your wallet are visiting their birthplace.

The paper for U.S. currency, the substrate of everyday commerce, has been made here since 1879 by the Crane family.

Crane & Co. vice president Doug Crane represents the eighth generation descended from Stephen Crane, who was making paper before the American Revolution.

He gave NPR reporters a behind-the-scenes tour and talked about his company.

Crane & Co.'s heritage predates the industrial age and faces an uncertain future as the digital era unfolds.

Amid all that, the unmistakable impression is that the business practices a peculiar alchemy that's unduplicated in American manufacturing.

As keeper of perhaps the ultimate secret recipe, the company carries the institutional memory of those who've made the paper for paper money since Thomas Edison was fiddling in his lab.

Crane seems ever aware that the sweep of history of the nation's money is, to him, personal.

He recalls an early lesson he got about the quality of his family's product, as a seven year old walking on the beach.

"I see this ten-dollar bill just flapping in the breeze out from underneath some seaweed. Someone had dropped this thing out in the ocean somewhere," Crane says.

"I picked it up, it dried off and it was in perfectly good shape."

Ordinary wood-pulp paper, of course, wouldn't have looked so good on the beach.

Crane tells us that currency paper is made of more durable linen and cotton fibers. So, a toss in the ocean is nothing compared to the torture it endures here in Dalton.

When NPR visited, the company was preparing tons of dull-brown linen fibers to be an ingredient in the paper.

One of the first things we see is a giant iron ball swinging from the rafters.

If you're at all familiar with the term "steampunk," you'll easily call it to mind.

"It's pretty crazy looking," Crane tells us.

Inside the big ball, the linen is cooked under pressure. Call it a kind of parboiling of the money molecules.

"It's about 15 feet in diameter and will hold several thousand pounds of fiber at a time," Crane says as the sphere, called a rotary digester, rocks high above us.

We follow the fibers through a network of baths and presses. They're bleached and processed until they land in what Crane calls a "slurry" with cotton fibers.

Then, machines press it into a continuous stream of paper that flows through the factory. When light shines through the paper, which today is for $20 bills, you can see watermarked images of Andrew Jackson.

If you look closely, you can see tiny red and blue security threads Crane showed us in baggies, but couldn't talk about much.

Crane poses for a photo in front of the paper as it spins on a large spool. He strokes it and smiles as the Jacksons go by.

The roll will ultimately get cut into smaller rolls, then sheets. From there the paper is piled onto pallets and trucked by armored tractor-trailer to Bureau of Engraving and Printing sites where money is printed.

Crane & Co. have had the contract for making US currency paper for over 130 years, and today they're basically the only game in town. The Government Accountability Office published a report in 1998 titled "Meaningful Competition Unlikely Under Current Conditions."

A few years later, the GAO said the government should try continue to look into getting a second supplier.

Doug Crane says the U.S. government audits the company's books every four years when the contract is up for renewal to make sure it's getting a fair price.

As NPR has reported, Crane is involved in a lobbying effort against bills in Congress to eliminate one-dollar bills and replace them with coins.

But, there's a larger issue: The fate of all paper money.

U.S. currency paper is 40 percent of his company's business, and Crane is an articulate spokesman for the convenience and efficiency of cash.

Still, as the digital age begins a restless adolescence, cash is no longer quite the economic sine qua non it once was.

Smart phones, along with debit and prepaid cards, have been getting more popular as a way to pay for things.

With some degree of understatement, Crane says he finds the issue interesting. If he's worried, you wouldn't know it.

He says he's not sure if cash's relevance will devolve, following the course of newspapers, film cameras and hard-wired telephones.

Still, he maintains that cash will continue to be a "significant fraction" of transactions for decades to come.

"Fifty years from now, will there be cash? Yeah, I'm sure there will be. Will there be a lot of it? I really couldn't tell you. Ask me in 40 years."

Of cash, he says, "It's not glitzy, it doesn't have electrons flying all over the place, but it's something you can rely on."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The dollar bills in our wallets are, of course, money, but they are also a product. The government has to buy the paper the bills are printed on from somewhere and for 130 years that somewhere has been Crane & Company, a small, privately owned paper mill in Massachusetts.

David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team paid a visit.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Every dollar bill you've ever touched started here, in an old weathered mill building that, frankly, feels a little bit abandoned. Doug Crane, whose family has run this place for generations, points overhead to a giant, metal medieval-looking sphere. It's like an old diving bell.

DOUG CRANE: It's pretty crazy looking. It's about 15 feet in diameter. It will hold, you know, several thousand pounds of fiber at a time.

KESTENBAUM: So that's the raw material for dollar bills in there?

CRANE: That's right. So that's where it all starts.

KESTENBAUM: What's in that ball cooking away is linen fiber. A dollar bill is 75 percent cotton, 25 percent linen. It's almost like a t-shirt. Dollar bills begin as the most unremarkable stuff. Doug points to damp piles of linen on the floor. It is gray and it smells like wet leaves.

Linen and cotton do make for very sturdy paper. As a quality check, Doug says they do this thing called a fold test, where a machine folds the paper and unfolds it and folds it and unfolds it until it breaks. Currency paper can last 5,000 folds. Normal paper that you'd stick in a copy machine - that, he says, will break after 100.

How does it feel when you're out there in the world and you see someone crumple up a dollar bill and stick it in their pocket?

CRANE: I think it's great. I'm like, you know, this is what the product's made for. It's there to be used and if this is how people want to use it, you know, that's up to them. I think it's fantastic.

KESTENBAUM: How did this little mill end up making the paper for the most trusted currency in the world? Well, in 1897, Doug's father's father's father's father, Winthrop Murray Crane, went to Washington, D.C. and outbid the competition by less than a penny - offered to make the paper for 38 and nine-tenths cents a pound.

Today, 130 years later, there is no real competition anymore. This is one of the few specialty mills left in the country. What they do here is complicated. There are lots of security features hidden in the paper. Doug takes a dollar bill out of his pocket and points to small colored threads scattered around the paper.

CRANE: There's a red one there and there's another one up over there. They're just everywhere in there and all the denominations have a mixture of red and blue.

KESTENBAUM: A different mixture for each bill or no?

CRANE: I'm not supposed to talk about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KESTENBAUM: It's hard to imagine another company with this kind of expertise, which raises a question. How do we know the government's getting a good price from you, if you're the only game in town?

CRANE: That's an excellent question and, you know, because we are the only game in town, we know that we have to behave in a responsible way.

KESTENBAUM: Also, he says, the government just makes them open their books, does a pretty intense audit every four years when the contract is up for renewal. Even without competition, though, there is a threat to Crane's business. We are using cash less and less often. There are credit cards, companies are setting up ways to pay with cell phones, but Doug says he does not think paper money is going away anytime soon.

CRANE: You know, you look at a bank note, you sit there and you hold it and you know you've got it. You know, if you say, well, how much is on my cell phone? And you got to call up something and you plug in a PIN or you do something and it tells you a bunch of numbers and you've got to think, well, is that really what I had there yesterday?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah. But my entire retirement account is just numbers. Like, I don't get to hold that in my hand ever. I better believe it's real.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CRANE: Well, that's a good point.

KESTENBAUM: I mean, really, do you think, in 50 years, is cash going to be any significant fraction of the transactions in the United States?

CRANE: I'm sure it's going to be a significant fraction of the transactions.

KESTENBAUM: In 50 years?

CRANE: I just - in 50 years. I just couldn't tell you what it's going to be.

KESTENBAUM: One thing in Doug's favor - the U.S. dollar is used a lot overseas. When the financial crisis hit, Crane & Company worked shift after shift making paper for $100 bills. People abroad in a time of crisis wanted to hold cold, hard U.S. cash.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program