Why does the American dollar rule

America in notes: where the US dollar comes from

Ed Mejia stands in the huge production hall; the noise is deafening. The shift supervisor in the gravure printing department carefully strokes an ink-scented sheet of fresh $ 20 bills: "No matter where I shop, I see my work everywhere. It's a fantastic feeling!"

The eyes of the sporty mid-fifties shine. "Now I'll show you how we fish out misprints!" With a marker pen he paints a full beard for Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States and slave owner. The machine immediately sounds the alarm.

Mejia's workplace is the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the official name of the US banknote printer. The United States Money Factory is in close proximity to the White House and the Holocaust Museum.

Notes worth 560 million dollars roll off the conveyor belt here every day. The entrance with the neoclassical limestone facade resembles a fortress. The huge building complex extends over three street blocks. The reinforced concrete structure comprises seven floors, two of which are underground.

Armored glazing

While Donald Trump tries to weaken the dollar because a strong currency thwarted his trade policy, everything is done here for his stability and security: armed guards scan every pocket.

Only those who are registered for a guided tour can get in, that's around one million tourists a year. They are shielded above the production halls and channeled through the print shop in an armored glass corridor. But we have received a special permit and are allowed to chat with the employees in the shielded zone.

We have an appointment with Lydia Washington. The woman in her mid-forties opens the first security gate for us with a digital key card. The production area begins behind a heavy steel turnstile and several doors. An oversized clock is adorned with dollar bills.

Tight, stuffy and patriotic

And George Washington, the first President of the United States, looks sternly from the poster-sized dollar on the wall. Air conditioning and fans are buzzing, the ten-meter-long and two-meter-high printing machines are running at full speed. But not a single sound gets outside.

Pallets with printed sheets are standing around, with printers and machine engineers working in between. Some are standing around in blue overalls, others in tank tops. It's narrow, stuffy and patriotic: the stars and stripes can be seen everywhere. Digitization or Robots? Nothing! Craftsmen are in demand here. It rumbles, smells of printing ink and machine oil. Small green pools of paint have formed in some places on the floor. This is where the US dollar, known colloquially as the "greenback", is at home.

Mödling dollar

America first, as Donald Trump proclaims like a mantra, is not law here. The heart of the production comes from Mödling near Vienna: an offset machine from the Austrian company KBA. One meter long sheets of paper whiz across the rollers at a speed of 9,000 to 10,000 sheets per hour.

Each sheet will later become 32 dollar bills. It and the other high-speed presses rotate 24 hours Monday through Friday. "This printing technique was first used in 2003," explains printer James Sutherland. "Back then it was only the twenties. Now we all print notes up to fifty dollars." The central bank gives its order to the BEP one year in advance.

$ 1.67 trillion is currently in circulation around the world. According to the Federal Reserve, only a third of it circulates in their own country. Every third note printed is a one-dollar bill with the portrait of George Washington. He watches on the front, the back shows the coat of arms eagle and a pyramid with the so-called "Eye of Providence" at the top - a symbol that is also used by the Freemasons.

Seal and number

The authority was founded on August 29, 1862. At the time, four women and two men worked for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Their job: to stamp the one- and two-dollar bills produced by private printers with seals and numbers.

But since 1877 all US dollar bills have only been printed here in Washington and a small branch office - as the federal agency of the Federal Reserve, as BEP employee Frank Noll explains: "The historic achievement of the Federal Reserve consisted in the different currencies that make up it existed in the US until 1862, to a single one. "

Jeans as a raw material

The raw material for the notes is also originally American: used blue jeans. Washed, shredded, bleached - this is what the family business Crane in Massachusetts uses to manufacture the raw material for the banknote printing plant that later becomes money.

While Australia, New Zealand and Canada have switched to plastic banknotes to increase their shelf life, the dollar is anything but a hard currency when it comes to paper quality: US dollar banknotes are made of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent Linen. But the production costs are lower.

Six years shelf life

A dollar note has been in circulation on average for around six years, after which it is worn out and is exchanged and destroyed at Bundesdruckerei. Before the First World War, dirty dollar bills were washed and ironed so that they could then be put back into circulation.

In the production hall, James Sutherland and department head Ed Mejia check the print quality of the "fresh" notes. To do this, every sheet is scanned for errors by digital cameras. Only two percent of the grades are incorrect, explains the head of department with beaming eyes.

And: In the print shop, the special paper is used sparingly. If a part of a sheet is identified as a misprint, only this part is shredded, never the whole sheet. Even so, dollars sometimes come into circulation with minor flaws. "They are outweighed by gold on collectors' fairs and on the Internet," says printing expert Mejia.

Gravure printing

For the next phase of making money, colleague Sutherland pushes the roughly one meter high square dollar stacks into a vault to dry. Then the dollar bills are gravure for engraving and other haptic details. Michael Dumarasky has been with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for 24 years.

He uses a special reader to check the quality of the gravure printing process and the security features. In front of our eyes, every single note is given a consecutive serial number and the seals of the Federal Printing Office and the Central Bank. So far, only two women have been allowed to decorate the greenback as a motif: the first wife Martha Washington and the indigenous Pocahontas.

Both notes have not been printed for over 100 years. At the end of the tour there is a current 100 dollar note, but shredded into tiny snippets. The notes destroyed in this way are weighed and sold in the exhibition shop. Price: 45 dollars for a five-pound sack (around 2.3 kilograms) - the inflation here is similar to that in Venezuela.

At the exit of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, George Washington looks sternly at visitors from a giant one-dollar bill. 220 years after his death, the first President of the United States also watches over the people and the country on the regular bills. The more of them are printed, the more thorough. (Anja Steinbuch, Michael Marek, RONDO, 23.8.2019)

The money in view

Tours at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing are free and last 40 minutes;
Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Info: moneyfactory.gov

The World Bank in Washington has a visitor center: worldbank.org

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History shows "Stories on money": americanhistory.si.edu

The Rooftop Lounge at Hotel W, Washington D.C., has a view of the Treasury Department and the White House: povrooftop.com