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Sep 03

Georging

For the past few (4+) years, I have been a “Georger” — a person who uses the website http://www.wheresgeorge.com/ to track the movement of US currency that passes through my hands.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this in future posts, I just wanted to start the conversation here with an observation about an article that appeared in the latest (September 4, 2017) New Yorker.

One of the things that fascinates me about the WheresGeorge hobby (and, yes, there is a connection with my thoughts about the autistic personality) is learning facts about currency production and circulation. There is a tie-in, too, with my lifelong interest in money as a concept — how it works, how it was invented, and other aspects of “the coin of the realm.” My career, after all, was in finance, and I have degrees in Economics.

As an aside, the coin of the realm, in the original phrase, was the English penny. We Americans often talk as though we have a penny, but in fact what we have is a one-cent piece. There has been much speculation about phasing out the Lincoln cent (in production since 1909), since it is often treated as more of a nuisance than a piece of value. Back in the day when the penny was indeed the coin of the realm, it was so valuable that it was not even the smallest coin issued. That honor belonged to the farthing, which was worth a quarter of a penny (the word itself is a corruption of “fourthing”), and Ceylon (which at the time was part of the British Empire) issued a coin worth half a farthing. But I digress.

The New Yorker article, by Adam Davidson, is titled “Smart Money” in the print edition, and “How the Dollar Stays Dominant” online. It starts out with a description of Crane Currency (aka Crane & Company or Crane Paper), which makes all the paper used in US currency, and is located in the same Massachusetts County where I was born and now live. Berkshire County, as I understand it, was where American papermaking got its start. Prior to 1844, paper was made from cloth rags. In that year, two different inventors, one in Canada and one in Germany, came up with the idea of using wood.

Rags were probably in fairly short supply in the Berkshires, but there were plenty of trees. Despite the demand for wood in the charcoaling (ironmaking) industry, and the need for lumber (tall white pines were highly prized as ships’ masts), trees were mostly a nuisance to farmers who needed clearcut land.

When I was growing up, in the 1950s, there were many mills along the Housatonic River engaged in the manufacture of paper, though by then most of the raw material was imported from farther north.

My father worked, for most of my childhood, at Eaton Paper Company, in Pittsfield. He was the foreman of the cutting room, where they produced envelopes and stationery. Our house was filled with scraps of paper he brought home — remnants of the cutting process; a multicolored collection of odd shapes left over after trimming large sheets. Eaton Paper did not manufacture paper, but took the local product and packaged it for end users.

We lived in Stockbridge, never far from the Housatonic River. As kids, we would often play down by the river, oblivious to the PCBs that flowed from the GE plant in Pittsfield. We always knew what color of paper was being produced that day, because the river would flow by in the various hues of the rainbow; pink one day, green the next. My mother (wisely) told us to stay out of the water (which also contained more than a little sewage), although she recounted her memories of the days in her youth when the river ran clear and clean, and she could swim in it.

Davidson’s article points out that Crane still uses cotton and linen to make the paper for our currency. This is just one of the features that makes it difficult to counterfeit the various denominations of dollar bills. The article highlights other technologies now in use:

The hundred-dollar bill, for example, is embedded with a micro-optic security ribbon—a blue line, next to Benjamin Franklin’s face, patterned with alternating images of the Liberty Bell and the number “100” which, when the bill is tilted, move up and down, left and right.

I remember the first time I saw one of these elaborately-designed bills, several months before they first went into production in February of 2010. It was at a political fundraiser in Pittsfield (the city next door to Dalton, where Crane is located). An employee of Crane had obtained permission to bring a prototype to the gathering, and it was enclosed in a heavy plastic sleeve on a chain that was handcuffed to his wrist. He was proud to show it around, but no one was allowed to touch even the plastic container. It struck me at the time that this kind of “security” was a bit of overkill amidst a group of people who were unlikely to become counterfeiters.

As a matter of fact, as the article makes clear, counterfeiting is not much of a problem at all. In a typical year, the Secret Service finds only a few million dollars’ worth of fake bills, not even a nat on the elephant of the trillion dollars that is in circulation.

Larry Felix, the former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told me that anti-counterfeit measures “don’t make much sense from a direct financial perspective,” since the cost of preventing counterfeiting is much greater than the infinitesimal loss caused by fake bills. But these measures have a broader, psychological purpose. “Banknotes depend on confidence,” Felix told me. (Our paper bills are called banknotes because they are, technically, promissory notes—formal I.O.U.s—issued by the Federal Reserve.) “You accept a banknote because you figure the person you will hand it to will also accept it.” This is the essential circular mystery of money: its value comes from each of us believing that everybody else will continue to believe in its value. The physical bill reinforces this bit of theatre, with the feel of the cotton-and-linen paper reminding us that dollars are long-trusted, and the ever-upgraded magical effects reassuring us that they will hold value far into the future.

In the Georging world, there is much discussion about counterfeiting (and how silly it is for cashiers to examine small-denomination bills with the bleach pen that is designed to detect wood-based paper). There is also a lot of worry about how debit cards are undermining the hobby because people will be using less cash than they used to. So far, though, that doesn’t seem to be a problem, since the Treasury prints more banknotes every year, even adjusted for things like inflation and population growth.

The tie-in with autism will be obvious to those who know how detail-oriented we autistics are. I’m not suggesting that everyone who enjoys the hobby is autistic, but Georging provides a playground for those who thrill at the likes of finding unusual patterns in serial numbers, or collecting counties in the US where their bills have been found. And, perhaps most importantly for many, Georging provides a wonderful social aspect: no need for small talk, no need to even meet the people you are dealing with. Although we do have many in-person Gatherings.

All of this deserves more commentary, as I continue my search to define what it means to be autistic. Stay tuned.

Addendum on September 22, after the passage through the Caribbean of Hurricanes Irma and Maria:

One of my $2 bills was hit this afternoon in the Netherlands Antilles (the old name of an entity which no longer exists). Specifically, the entry was made in Kralendijk, which is the capital city of Bonaire, an island which itself is a special municipality within the Netherlands. I was at first surprised when I saw the entry, because I thought all of those islands had been devastated by one or both of the hurricanes. My sense of the geography in that part of the world is a bit fuzzy, despite having been to many of the islands. I was once, for example, in Curaçao for a week, which is not far from Bonaire, so I should have realized those islands are far to the south of the paths of those storms.

I offer this as an example of why hobbies like this one (or stamp collecting) can be so fascinating to those of us who love to dig into details. When I see something like this that provokes my interest, I research it, and learn new things. I did this as a young stamp collector, long before the days of the internet. I think this is one autistic characteristic that is probably nearly universal: a keen lifelong interest in learning how the world works.

In the Georging world, there are many discussion forums devoted to (what may seem like to outsiders) arcane topics. One that I have enjoyed is the challenge to find cities (a generic label that includes towns and other local municipal units), that have not been identified by an earlier Georger, in which a bill is hit, that are named after a person or a group of people (fictional, mythical, or actual).

Again, you don’t have to be autistic to enjoy hobbies like stamp collecting or Georging, but I’m sure it helps!

4 comments

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  1. Margie Atwater

    Michael, as I am getting to know you better I am finding you a much more interesting fella!!

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Margie, I guess that’s a good thing, eh?

  2. Hinda Bodinger

    What a great essay, Michael! And I still have all of the $2 bills you gave me for whatever it was you owed me for. They are so crisp and new and special – even several years later. They just make me happy. I look forward to your future writings. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Thanks, Hinda, glad you enjoyed it. But spend those twos!

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