Though few Washingtonians know of him, most of us carry some of Thomas Hipschen’s art every day. His portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Ben Franklin are cut into American history, printed on the front of the $5, $20, $50, and $100 bills.
Hipschen is considered one of the world’s best portrait engravers. “For the late 20th century, he is basically the engraver,” says Mark D. Tomasko, author of The Feel of Steel, a history of currency engraving in the United States.
But when the Treasury Department rolls out a new $100 bill in February, the engraving on the front—a fuller portrait of Franklin—will be Hipschen’s last. The two-centuries-old tradition of hand engraving is fading away. Bank-note artists who cut tiny dots, dashes, and lines into steel plates are putting down their tools and instead using a keyboard and a digital tablet to create images that can be produced in three weeks rather than three months.
The move to digital engraving has raised concern about security and even sparked conflict between the Federal Reserve, the central bank that buys the bank notes, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which manufactures them, says Michael Lambert, assistant director for cash at the Federal Reserve Board.
Hand engraving has been a security feature of US currency since the early 1800s. Since then, it has been made increasingly complex and intricate in order to frustrate counterfeiters. Hand engraving has remained an important tool for fending off forgeries because engravers’ artistic fingerprints—the subtle differences in style found in the tiny dots and dashes—are hard to replicate. Those idiosyncrasies get lost when the work is done on a computer.
But at the same time that the bureau is phasing out hand engraving, it’s adding anti-counterfeiting technology. The new $100 bill will have features such as a three-dimensional ribbon as well as ink that contains microscopic flakes that shift color with movement. Says Stephen Mihm, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in the history of money: “These innovations are the latest in a game of cat and mouse that has been going on for centuries.”
A magnifying glass held to Benjamin Franklin’s coat—which Hipschen lengthened for the new $100 bill—and to the facial and eye area on the left side of the note, reveals lines that are alternatively heavy, thin, dark, and light. Slanted, tic-tac-toe-like crosshatches with dots inside create depth and texture.
“It’s almost as if the portrait is rising off the paper,” says Gene Hessler, author of five books on paper money and engravers. “A master engraver like Hipschen creates this three-dimensional effect better than anyone.”
Hipschen has spent decades studying engravings—especially those from the 1920s and ’30s—to learn ways to use open space, lines, and dots. “There are a million little decisions because there are a million little dots,” he says. “It’s a very tiny canvas, so all the space has to be put to good use.”
Hipschen’s interest in art was sparked at age eight, when he saw a drawing of a young hare by the German Renaissance engraver Albrecht Dürer in a magazine. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” he recalls. Hipschen also copied pictures in comic books that his father, a drugstore manager in Bellevue, Iowa, brought home after they didn’t sell.
Hipschen dreamed of studying art in college but knew that with ten children in the family (he was second-oldest), his parents couldn’t afford it. A door to art opened when his cousin Bob Jones, a postage-stamp designer at the Bureau of Engraving in DC, returned home to Iowa to visit and saw Hipschen’s work. Jones knew the bureau was searching for an apprentice and encouraged his cousin to apply.
Hipschen traveled alone to Washington at age 17 with a bus ticket his grandfather had bought. He sketched a still life, competing with dozens of older artists before winning the post. He credits his youth with helping him get the job: “They wanted someone they could mold.”