Perkins’ Printing and Engraving Plant
During the earliest days of the United States, preventing counterfeiting was critical to the stabilization of our banking system and, for that matter, an issue of national security.
Before Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) of Newburyport, the usual method of printing security documents was from engraved copper plates. But, copper being soft meant that the plates soon became worn and required re-engraving. After experimenting with iron plates which also suffered from wear problems, Jacob Perkins developed a method using multiple small steel engravings that were interlocked precisely as a single plate. Each note might require up to 64 dies, each one carrying an elaborate motif that was part of the total design. Soon his process was improved by hardening the steel dies and plates, making long runs of identical documents possible. The annealing of steel to soften it, followed by cementation to harden it, was a long-accepted process but it was Perkins who must take credit for adapting the process to such flat and delicate surfaces as bank notes (paper currency).
Early in 1808, Jacob Perkins had induced his brother, Abraham, to join him in his engraving and printing business. By mortgaging his home to his brother, Jacob was able to raise the necessary funds to build a three-story brick engraving plant at the end of the garden behind his 14 Fruit Street home.
In 1809, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a Special Act forcing all paper money in the state to be printed by Jacob Perkins’ stereotype steel plates. This was an effort both to prevent counterfeiting as well as to promote more uniformity in the design of bank bills.
The engraving plant was in full operation under the careful supervision of his brother Abraham while Jacob turned his attention to other inventive interests. One of the inventions he perfected at this time was a machine for polishing and graining Morocco leather.
For the next 23 years, it was here on Fruit Street in Newburyport where Massachusetts’ currency was engraved and most of it was printed.
Locally referred to as “The Mint”, the Historical Society of Old Newbury acquired the Perkins Printing and Engraving Plant in 2008. The purchase of this important historic site was made possible by a single gift from The Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank. The cost involved with the restoration of this project was partially funded through a grant from the Newburyport Community Preservation Committee.