Lara Rose Roberts Archive Visit 1: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

As I wrote in my last post, the idea of “ephemera” has provided the most useful framework for my understanding the non-printed materiality of my Pet “Book”: a record book for a 19th century shipping company. Because of that, I wanted to deepen my understanding of the material ephemera, by using my archive visits to seek other artifacts from within the shipping industry. My hunt through the BPL Special Collections finding aids led me to the collection “Whaling and Other Nautical Papers. 1696-1974,” and the three boxes (94 folders total) are filled with “correspondence, invoices, receipts, account books, crew records, insurance records, contracts and photographic images” (Staff). In short, the collection represents a wide variety of different genres within the larger context of ephemera. In four hours, I looked through materials in 12 folders. However, instead of trying to describe all of the items I saw, or trying to fit them into an overarching thematic narrative, I want to discuss the “book” history of one particular item.

Folder 1 contains an empty pouch that, according to the label on the front, once held “Whale Smoking Tobacco.” The label is square, with an image of a whale spouting water, and a framed notice at the bottom declares its place of origin as the District of North Carolina. This notice also reminds “Every person” that “under the penalties of the law [they are] not to use this package for tobacco again.” The pouch is unbleached, cream-colored, woven fabric, and I am reminded of my Abraham Bell &Co shipping company records, so many of which involves orders for flax. This pouch may be made of flax—it looks to be about the correct color and texture—but I cannot rub my fingertips against the fabric, for the pouch is enclosed in a protective sleeve.

Flecks of tobacco dirty the corners of this plastic sleeve—tobacco that, according to the paper seal on the other side of the pouch, is over one-hundred-years old. This other seal is printed on blue paper and reads “Tax Paid Stamp.” It is approximately ¾ inch wide by six inches long, separated onto the front and back of the pouch by a tear in the center from where the consumer first unfolded the tobacco pouch. Underneath “Tax Paid Stamp” is a small, engraved image of John Q. Adams (the name is printed in the frame of the image). The year “1910” with an elaborate border cover the bottom three inches of the seal. I do not quite understand why this piece of ephemera, destined for the trash, would be designed and engraved so carefully, but I do know this entire label is engraved. I know this, not only because the Adams portrait is composed of those telltale lines of etching, but also because small print along the side reads “Bureau for Engraving and Printing.”

This small label is my jumping off point for my research: The Bureau for Engraving and Printing (BEP) provides the first clue with which I can start to fill out Robert Darnton’s “Communications Circuit” for the production of the printed matter that I had found. Sitting in the archive, I resorted to Googling and discovered that the US Bureau for Engraving and Printing is still in operation today. According to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum,

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has its origins in legislation enacted to help fund the Civil War. In July 1861, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to issue paper currency in lieu of coin due to the lack of funds needed to support the conflict. . . . Gradually, more and more work involving currency and Government obligations (bonds, notes and etc.), including their engraving and printing, devolved to the Treasury. (Smithsonian 2).

I semi-trust the Smithsonian as a historical source, so at this point, I know that, within Darnton’s circuit, the Publisher, Printer, and Author[Engraver] are all employees of the US Government, and the Economic/Social/Political influences that led to the printing of the tax seal as a genre was the Civil War. However, I want to know more, I want to know if I can track down the individuals, I want to find out about the printing processes of the BEP. I start digging into the digital archives of the Library of Congress and find The Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, of the United States of America. From December 5, 1859, to March 3, 1863.

 Within these records, I find the details of the history told by the Smithsonian: a “bureau” for dealing with currency had been established on February 25, 1863, with An Act to provide a national Currency, secured by a Pledge of United States Stocks, and to Provide for the Creation and Redemption thereof. Specifically, in this act, the Bureau of Currency and the office of Comptroller is established. Section 18 of the act reads “And be it further enacted, That, in order to furnish suitable notes for circulation, the comptroller of the currency is hereby authorized and required, under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause plates to be engraved in the best manner to guard against counterfeiting and fraudulent alterations, and to have printed therefrom, and numbered, such quantity of circulating notes, in blank, of the denominations of five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars [etc.]” (37th Congress, 3rd Session, 665-669).

I know now that, by March of 1863, the United States had an official bureau for the printing of paper currency, and that the currency was engraved. Before that point, though, the language of the Act makes it seem like all issues relating to the printed notes were purview of the Secretary of the Treasury, who, at that time, was Salmon P. Chase, from Ohio (“About”). I assumed that Mr. Chase had not been hired for his skill at engraving, so I fell back into the congressional records for clues of printing. I found that the printing of paper money had begun (as the Smithsonian had said) on December 17, 1860, with An Act to authorize the Issue of Treasury Notes, and for other Purposes (36th Congress, 2nd Session, 121). This act does not specify who is in charge of printing the notes, nor what method they will use; however, Sections 12 and 13 specify that the charges for any persons counterfeiting the notes or found with “any metallic plate engraved after the similitude of any plate from which any notes issued as aforesaid shall have printed, with intent to use such plate” will received a sentence of imprisonment and hard labor for three-ten years and a fine of up to five thousand dollars (36th Congress, 2nd Session, 123). Even though the Act does not specific, I assume that, from this point to 1863, the task of printing of the notes fell to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Printing, which had been established in a Joint Resolution on June 23, 1860 (36th Congress, 1st Session, 117).

This background, though long, was necessary for me to understand the history of the BEP. With this understanding, I was led into the history of Tax Stamps themselves. This specific genre of printed matter is indeed ephemera, but an interesting subset, because tax stamps represent income for the United States Government. Congress enacted the excise tax on materials sold within the U.S. on July 1, 1862, in An Act to provide Internal Revenue to support the Government and to Pay Interest on the Public Debt. It reads that, on any “articles, goods, wares, and merchandise [sold] within the United States of Territories thereof, there shall be levied, collected, and paid the following duties, to be paid by the producer or manufacturer thereof” (37th Congress, 2nd Session, 432).No price is listed on the whale tobacco tax stamp, but, in 1862, the tax on tobacco was between two and twenty cents per pound, depending on its quality, value, and whether the tobacco was prepared with stems or not (463). These taxes were to be paid with “Stamp Duties” (475).

At first, I thought that a stamp duty was literally the purchase of printed “tax stamps,” like the one on the tobacco bag in the archive. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue was given the power to sell these “adhesive stamps or stamped paper, vellum, or parchment” (477). However, interestingly, “any proprietor or proprietors of articles . . . who shall furnish his or their own die or design for stamps, to be used especially for his or their own proprietary articles, shall be allowed [a] discount [between five and ten percent]” (477). So, even though the government had an Office for Public Printing, the U.S. Government did not initially regulate the printing of the stamps themselves. Instead, the stamps were merely printed symbols that a tax had been paid. With a little more digging, I find that on March 3, 1863, in An Act making Appropriations for sundry Civil Expenses of the Government, Congress “enacted, That the Secretary of the Treasury is hereby authorized to allow to Butler and Carpenter, contractors for engraving internal revenue stamps, thirty per cent. of the cost of engraving the special dies for that purpose, and not to exceed in amount the sum of twenty thousand dollars” (37th Congress, 3rd Session, 752). John M. Butler and Mr. Joseph R, Carpenter were engravers from Philadelphia, whose skills also include “other important Engravings . . . [that] constitute a valuable addition to the Fine Art Literature of America” (Freedley 548).

Between 1862 and 1863, almost anyone could print a tax stamp, at which point the job fell to independent contractors. I cannot find evidence otherwise, so I assume that the duty of printing tax stamps remained with Butler & Carpenter until 1877 when “Congress mandated that the engraving and printing of notes, bonds, and other securities of the United States be performed solely at the Treasury Department (Smithsonian 3). By 1877, the tax stamp became a thing in and of itself: a piece of printed ephemera produced and sold by the US government. This is, of course, the same type of ephemera as the postage stamps sold by the United States Postal Service—stamps which have been printed by the Bureau for Engraving and Printing continuously from 1894 through today (Smithsonian 3). We know, though, that the BEP does not print only ephemera, for only the wealthy can consider Federal Reserve Notes (cold hard cash) to be something that can be thrown away.

I return now to the material object within the Boston Public Library. I was confused by the elaborateness of the printed seal, but that design feature makes infinitely more sense knowing this history. As a piece of official United States government printed matter (one that signified revenue for the country), it needed to be difficult to counterfeit (a position which we could compare to the Smugglers within Darnton’s circuit). The art of engraving was chosen for this purpose, and even now, the US paper currency is still, as a first step, designed and engraved. You can see photographs of the current designers and engravers on the Bureau’s website (“U.S. Currency”). I’m certain that, somewhere in some archive, I could discover the names of the individuals who worked as designers and engravers for the bureau in 1910; unfortunately, that archive is not the one at the Boston Public Library.


Works Cited

“About — Secretaries of the Treasury.” U.S. Department of the Treasury,, accessed 27 November 2016.

Darnton, Robert. Figure 2.1 The Communications Circuit, “What is the History of Books?” The Book History Reader, 2nd edition, edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, Routledge, 2006, pp. 9-26.

Freedley, Edwin T. Philadelphia and its Manufactures; A Hand-Book of the Great Manufactories and Representative Mercantile Houses of Philadelphia, in 1867. Philadelphia: Edward Young & Co, 1867.

Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “About BEP.” Bureau of Engraving and Printing,, accessed 27 November 2016.

Staff: Rare Books and Manuscripts Department. “Whaling and Other Nautical Papers, 1696-1974.” Boston Public Library Archival and Manuscript Finding Aid Database,, accessed 16 November 2016.

United States Congressional Senate. Statutes at Large, Arranged in Chronological Order and carefully collated with the Originals at Washington. With References to the Matter of Each Act and to the Subsequent Acts on the Same Subject. Edited by George P. Sanger, Counselor at Law, Volume XII. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1863. Accessed on 27 November 2016.


“U.S. Currency: How Money is Made.” Bureau of Engraving and Printing, U.S. Department of the Treasury,, accessed 27 November 2016.

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