Faking It


No matter that Benjamin Franklin had been experimenting with ways to print counterfeit-proof paper money since the mid-18th century, the determined efforts of counterfeiters could not be thwarted. Counterfeiting only grew worse in the 19th century: by 1815, nearly 200 private banks, given the right by the United States government, were issuing their own paper currency, a figure that would more than double by the 1840s and continue to increase in the following decades. What was more, banks were not the only entities issuing notes, and were joined by merchants, canal companies, factory owners, and others. In addition, the United States was awash in hard currency issued by foreign governments made of gold, silver, and copper. Not only did these many financial instruments change hands at a rapid pace – often among people who did not know each other personally – but their value also fluctuated wildly in the market. Confusion among many meant opportunity for some, and counterfeiting became a rampant problem that vexed Americans throughout the century.

Money, however, was not the only thing enterprising counterfeiters imitated. With the help of scientific improvements, they manufactured imitation luxuries such as precious metals, gemstones, and fine fabrics so convincing that they fooled even the most experienced retailers. Counterfeiters also made fakes of more mundane products, including patent medicines, tea, tobacco, and even seeds, which were profitable when sold in quantity to complicit and unwitting wholesalers alike.