If counterfeiters are dinosaurs, can printers be far behind?

It was called “Old Money” for a good reason. Crane Papers of Massachusetts made it, the very same company that made currency stock for the U.S. Treasury for all those years. I had heard all of the stories about printers and counterfeiting, but I guess it never really registered. That was before the order for letterhead printed on “Old Money” came in.

We ordered the stock through Unisource, our primary vendor at the time. The order was for 5000 sheets, so I think we ordered 5500 sheets to account for waste. I liked the stock when it came in . . . it really did have the look and feel of old money. High rag content, kind of soft feeling and a very light green tint when you looked at it in sunlight. Cool, I thought, then went on to the next thing.

It was a couple of days later when I picked up the phone. It was a young lady from Crane who wanted to speak with the owner. “You’re not in our records,” began the conversation.

“That’s good?” I responded.

“Not necessarily,” was the reply. “I’m calling about the paper.”

“Ahh, the paper . . .” I answered, still without the foggiest notion of who she was or where this conversation was heading. “What paper?”

“Old Money,” retorted the young lady, and it all came together for me.

AlphaGraphics Macon was not in her database. We had purchased a product that looked suspiciously like real money, and she needed to know where it went. I played along, giving her information about our customer, the quantity delivered and what we had left. I comforted her with the assurance that we were indeed a real printing company and not a concern for either Crane Papers or the U.S. Treasury Department.

As far as I can tell, “Old Money” has gone the way of most of the interesting papers of the last century. Henry Ford would approve of today’s approach to paper selection. The customer can have anything they want, as long as it’s white or tan. As demand for paper has declined, the paper industry has consolidated, and much of the really interesting paper we used to be able to get is no longer available.

As of last week, there were basically two large manufacturers left. Domtar and Sappi seem to have gobbled up all of the rest of the big companies. We still are able to buy our old standby sheet, Cougar Opaque, which used to be made by Weyerhaueser, which was purchased by International Paper, which was swallowed by Domtar. You get the picture. There are two remaining US fine paper mills, Neenah and Mohawk, that still offer a pretty wide selection of flavors . . . but none of the paper distributors keep them in stock. Crane is actually still around. They make very nice and expensive writing paper that can be obtained in white or tan and they still produce the currency paper for the U.S. mint.

Why am I writing this? I miss the variety. Designers used to love to choose a fancy paper to make their project special. Their goal was to create an economical, but elegant printed piece, using one or two colors of ink on an unusual paper and sometimes with an unusual shape. One of our favorite designers, who moved to Japan and then to Ohio, but who was not swallowed up in large company mergers; used to do amazingly creative things with paper and ink. They were fun to print.

Designers have moved to the web and paper has become boring. The paper manufacturers tried to console us for a while by making up new names for white and tan. “Ecru” sounds kind of designey. “Natural white” is down to earth. “Cream” is kind of comforting. “Soft ivory” doesn’t do much for me, because I don’t like the idea of hunting elephants. And when you put all of these sheets beside one another, they’re all tan. “Glacier” is whiter than tan, but not nearly as white as “Solar” or “Avalanche.” You understand.

Printers have coped by printing a lot more in color. The technology for short run color has become more accessible and prices for offset have come way down with the onset of automation and with increased competition. Sometimes we even print a background to simulate the interesting paper we used to be able to purchase.

I never printed on “Old Money” again and I don’t suppose Crane needs to keep a database of printers who buy their papers anymore. You don’t read much about counterfeiting any more. Like fine papers, it may have become a thing of the past. Why would any self-respecting criminal would bother with messy, labor intensive crime like forgery or counterfeiting when easier, neater high-tech crimes like identity theft are so readily available?

A customer will still occasionally ask to come in and look at paper. They’re remembering swatch books with dozens of shades and textures from which to choose. Some are incredulous when I explain the limited availability. But the runs are short and usually a deadline is looming, so ordering in carton quantities from the mill is rarely an option. I’m tired of white and tan, too; but fine papers are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. And honestly, I’m feeling a little fossilized myself.

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3 Responses to If counterfeiters are dinosaurs, can printers be far behind?

  1. jim reeves says:

    Ah, but Counterfeiters are alive and well. They recently started printing money to help buy out large, investment banking firms.

    best to you…..

  2. […] 3. A blog written by the actual owner of a print shop. Poor Richard has an excellent post on the disappearance of distinctive papers. […]

  3. […] It wasn’t always this way.  In days of yore, before the U.S. abdicated our manufacturing crown (regulated and free traded it away), it was possible to buy a variety of domestic papers:  in different colors, in different grades, at different price points. Now, many of the remaining U.S. mills are owned by overseas companies and the selection has been reduced to “white ” or “natural” (see Poor Richard’s post “If Counterfeiters are dinosaurs, can printers be far behind?”). […]

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