Digital Dollars

Could Physical Currency Soon Be a Thing of the Past?

Photo provided Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin gives the Bureau of Engraving and Printing his signature that appears on currency notes.

MARTINS FERRY — These days many people prefer to use their debit cards or even a cellphone app to pay for things, leaving their cash in the bank.

There are now even some restaurants in big cities that accept only electronic methods of payment — no cash allowed. This may lead some to wonder if a completely cashless society could soon exist. And, if so, what would become of the beautiful artwork created on our money?

The U.S. Mint celebrated its 225th anniversary last year. Each year the mint comes out with new collections of quarters to collect — and spend — along with other commemorative coins. Remember the state quarter collection craze of recent years?

This year, new America the Beautiful Quarters are being released. The first, Pictured Rocks, Mich., was released Feb. 5. The artwork on the coin depicts Chapel Rock and a pine tree that grows on top of it.

The U.S. Mint employs four different sculptor-engravers — Michael Gaudioso, Renata Gordon, Phebe Hemphill and Joseph Menna — who also contribute some designs for coins. The Mint also has a list of 15 artists it uses to create designs for new coins that are then executed by the sculptor-engravers. Periodically it conducts a call for new artists.

For some people — though businesses may be moving to electronic-only payments — using cash only still is a means to living in a more secure world.

“I’m an old-school guy, I prefer cash for everything. … I always have,” said Bellaire resident Scott McGarry. “That’s kind of funny for an IT guy. I think it’s more secure, and if it’s in my pocket that’s as secure as it can get.”

McGarry noted it seems institutions are moving toward electronic-only payments, but “it’s hard to imagine” society operating that way.

In contrast, Vic Wood, a local physician, said he is looking forward to the day that he doesn’t have to carry any cash. Wood said he would rather just use a thumb print or even an iris scan instead of carrying dollar bills or a plastic credit card.

“Personally, I like to go electronic as much as I can,” Wood said. “Right now you have to carry cash, but I would like it if I didn’t have to carry a wallet at all.”

Dollars bills — or Federal Reserve notes — are made by the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. According to the Treasury, “the BEP prints billions of dollars … each year for delivery to the Federal Reserve System. U.S. currency is used as a medium of exchange and store of value around the world. There is approximately $1.55 trillion worth of Federal Reserve notes in circulation.

“The BEP is one of the largest currency printing operations in the world with facilities in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas. Current BEP currency production is quite different from its beginnings in 1862, which consisted of a handful of people separating notes with a hand-cranked machine in the basement of the Treasury building.”

Much like the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing employs people who design dollar bills.

“Currency is designed with a purpose. When redesigning a note, designers strive to convey a dignified image that reflects the strength of the American economy; retain familiar characteristics that identify a note as American currency; incorporate the latest anti-counterfeiting features; and consider how details such as outlines, tone, and shading will ‘translate’ when engraved and printed on an intaglio press,” the bureau notes.

“Traditionally, banknote designers utilized classical tools like the pencil, pen and ink, or paint brush to take their visions from concept to the final model ready for the engravers. Today, the modern designer has the command of a wide array of tools including cutting edge digital technology. While the processes have evolved over time, one important tradition remains in the steadfast production of America’s paper currency — a designer’s and engraver’s exquisite attention to craft and detail.”