What is the American dollar made of? The dollar, printed with symbols of Americana and portraits of great statesmen, is one of the most ubiquitous and powerful currencies in the world. But have you ever wondered what gives it value or what materials it’s actually made from?

If you’re in a rush, here’s the short answer: today’s dollar bills are made of 25% linen and 75% cotton.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the physical composition of U.S. paper money. We’ll explore the history behind the current fabric mixture, the durability and security benefits it provides, the dollar’s signature green color, and much more.

A Brief History of Dollar Bill Materials and Design

The Shift From Paper to Fabric in the Early 20th Century

Prior to the early 1900s, all US paper currency was printed on paper made of cotton and linen fibers. However, this paper money wore out quite quickly, lasting on average only about 18 months in circulation before becoming too torn or dirty to use.

To improve durability, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began experimenting with cloth-based currency in the early 20th century.

The first modern $1 bills printed on a special linen fabric blend were issued as Silver Certificates in Series 1914. This new material made the notes much more durable, extending their lifespans to up to 5 years on average.

By Series 1928, all small-size bills transitioned from paper to the cotton-linen blend fabric that is still used today in Federal Reserve Notes and other US currency.

Gradual Changes Leading Up to the Modern Polymer Series

Besides shifting from paper to linen-cotton blend currency paper in the 1920s and 30s, the look and feel of US bills stayed relatively consistent for decades. It wasn’t until the 1990s that more noticeable design overhauls occurred, such as new larger off-center portraits, watermarks, color-shifting ink, and enhanced anti-counterfeiting features.

Today, while most US currency remains the familiar linen-cotton paper blend, some modern experimental series introduce the latest banknote technology. For example, in 2011 a special limited run $10 bill series printed on a thin flexible plastic polymer was tested.

Made of plastic rather than paper, these polymer notes further improve durability and have complex holographic security features. If these experimental plastic banknotes continue performing well in circulation tests, polymer dollar bills could become more standard in the future.

The Fabric Composition and Properties of Today’s Dollars

75% Cotton, 25% Linen Material Blend

Modern United States banknotes consist of a blend of 75% cotton and 25% linen. This material composition was selected by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) for its durability, longevity, and security benefits.

Cotton fiber gives the dollar flexibility and durability, while the linen content provides extra strength and resistance to wear.

Compared to earlier banknote fabric blends, the 75/25 cotton/linen composition wears nearly two times longer. Extensive testing by the BEP has proven that this material blend optimally retains important security features like watermarks and security threads through years of circulation and use.

The average $1 bill remains in circulation for close to 6 years before needing replacement.

The 75% cotton used is a special variety of cotton that contains very short fibers. This gives dollar bills better ink retention properties allowing the intricate engraved patterns and hard-to-counterfeit details to be clearly printed on the thin flexible material.

Thin Yet Durable Weave with Security Benefits

The banknote paper used for dollars has a very tight and thin weave. Each banknote goes through an extensive production process by huge precision machinery at facilities like the BEP to achieve the thinness and special hard-to-duplicate weave pattern.

Though dollar bills may seem flimsy, the material is quite durable for daily transactional use. Their thin flexible nature also provides some security benefits making the bills difficult to counterfeit.

The unique feel and sound of rubbing the thin paper between fingers or hands is hard to replicate illegally.

The use of a thin yet durable cotton/linen substrate allows dollar bills to embed important overt and covert security features like color-shifting ink, security threads, microprinting, and watermarks.

Many of these features are only fully visible or verifiable when holding the banknote up and viewing it at certain angles enabling merchants and vendors to easily do visual or tactile authentication.

Dollar bills also retain a portrait watermark visible when viewing the note against a light background. This watermark depicting the primary portrait is extremely hard to duplicate and serves as an easy visual verification that one is holding a legitimate US banknote.

Ink Composition and the Origins of U.S. Currency’s Green Hue

The ink used on U.S. paper currency has a very distinct green color, which is where the term “greenback” originates from. But what exactly gives American money its iconic verdant hue? The composition of the ink and the history behind its adoption can give some insight.

A Shift from Black to Green Ink in the 1860s

Up until the 1860s, U.S. banknotes were printed exclusively in black ink. However, the advent of color lithography and photography led to widespread counterfeiting. To combat this, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase ordered the first federally-issued currency to be printed with green ink made from a mixture of dyes in 1863.

This distinct color was much harder to reproduce and helped deter counterfeiting attempts.

Modern Green Ink Composition

The green ink used on today’s Federal Reserve Notes continues to stump most counterfeiters. While its exact composition remains confidential for security reasons, some insights can be gleaned from U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing statements:

  • The color comes from a blend of blue and yellow dyes.
  • The ink also contains magnetically detectable components for automation purposes when printing bills.
  • Additional security features are embedded in the ink, but details remain secret.

Experts theorize that the blue dye component may be a special phthalocyanine blue pigment, which contains unique optical properties difficult to duplicate. The yellow dye likely enhances the blue tint into a greenish shade.

Durability of Green Ink Components

The green color holds up well over time and is used thanks to the durable dye components. The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing states the ink bleeds sufficiently into cotton-linen paper currency fibers to retain its colorfastness and security taggants over years of circulation.

This prevents easy removal of the green tint while maintaining anti-counterfeiting traits. Extensive pre-release testing also ensures the green ink withstands folding, scuffing, light exposure, and other environmental conditions.

Ink Component Purpose
Blue phthalocyanine dye Primary green color
Yellow dye Shifts hue towards green
Anti-counterfeiting taggants Security and authentication
Bleeding/adhesion chemicals Bond ink to cotton-linen paper fibers

While the exact ingredients remain confidential, the green ink’s resilience properties and difficult-to-duplicate composition continue the historical anti-counterfeiting effectiveness that’s become symbolic of U.S. currency.

Anti-Counterfeiting Features Beyond the Fabric Itself

Security Threads and Watermarks

Modern US currency incorporates advanced security features to thwart counterfeiters. One such feature is the security thread – a plastic strip embedded in the paper that is only visible when holding the bill up to the light.

The thread contains the text “USA” and the denomination repeated along its length. Watermarks are another classic anti-counterfeiting technique – faint images pressed into the paper that are viewable when holding the bill up to the light.

Benjamin Franklin’s portrait contains a watermark on the $100 bill for example.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the agency that produces currency, these features make bills harder to replicate as they are embedded directly into the paper, not just printed on the surface. The unique cotton/linen paper itself also acts as a security barrier.

Attempting to use regular commercially available paper to print fake money would be easily detectable by trained cash handlers.

Color-Shifting Ink, Microprinting, and More

In addition to security threads and watermarks, color-shifting ink is utilized in various design elements on dollar bills. When viewed from different angles, the color appears to shift from green to black or purple on modern notes.

This effect is very difficult to properly replicate and alerts users to phony notes with normal non-shifting ink.

Microprinted words which are minuscule in size also appear on real currency when viewed under magnification. Phrases like “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” ring the portraits as a form of additional currency authentication. A blurry or missing microprint is a sign of a counterfeit attempt.

The BEP states that no single anti-counterfeiting feature should be considered in isolation since counterfeiters can sometimes replicate individual elements. However, combining multiple features on a single bill significantly augments the security barriers.

For example, color-shifting ink combined with embedded security threads woven into unique paper provides solid provision against fakes.

Newer $100 bills for example have additional onboard electronics that provide users and cash-handling machines the ability to verify authenticity. This includes color-shifting “bells” on Franklin’s collar that switch between copper and green based on the viewing angle.

The significance of such robust composite techniques is evidenced by the fact most counterfeit attempts focus on lower $1, $5, or $10 denomination notes which lack such sophisticated safeguards.

Future Dollar Design and Materials on the Horizon

The design and materials used to create US dollar bills have remained relatively unchanged for decades. However, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) is continuously researching new technologies and materials to improve the security features and durability of future currency.

Polymer Substrates

The BEP has been studying the feasibility of using polymer substrates, instead of the cotton/linen paper currently used. Polymer notes are more durable and secure compared to paper notes. Countries like Australia and Canada have already shifted to polymer banknotes.

The benefits of using polymer include:

  • More resistant to dirt and moisture
  • Harder to counterfeit due to advanced security features embedded in the plastic
  • Last significantly longer, resulting in lower overall costs

The BEP expects polymer notes to last at least 2-3 times longer based on the experiences of other countries. The agency is working closely with polymer substrate suppliers to test compatibility with US banknote printing processes and security features.

Enhanced Security Features

Currency security features are constantly upgraded to stay ahead of counterfeiters. The BEP is looking at introducing more robust features such as:

  • Optically variable devices – Features like color-shifting ink that displays different colors from different viewing angles.
  • Machine-readable security threads – New threads that can be scanned to extract hidden information.
  • photochromic ink – Ink that changes color when exposed to light or heat.

These features use cutting-edge nanotechnology and materials science to create unique optical effects that are easy for the public to validate, but very hard for counterfeiters to replicate.

Conductive Inks

Inks with conductive properties can be used to introduce electrical circuits into banknote design. This could enable new possibilities like:

  • Chipless RFID tags – Encode serial numbers in radio signals from printed antennas.
  • Touch-sensitive areas – Trigger hidden displays when touched.
  • Power sources – Printed batteries/solar cells to power displays

Conductive inks can pave the way for sophisticated banknotes capable of interacting digitally with inspection devices. However, the technology is still emerging and will require extensive reliability testing before being deployed.

What Is The American Dollar Made Of – Conclusion

As we’ve explored, the American dollar rests on a complex intersection of history, chemistry, economics, and security. While early banknotes were printed on simple paper, today’s dollars rely on a durable yet thin blend of plant-based fibers.

This unique cotton-linen mixture gives paper money both long-lasting strength as well as anti-counterfeiting potential through the embedded security features it allows. And the dollar’s iconic green hue stems from pigments just as complex as the nation they represent.

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